Rights groups and tech giants form alliance to fight encryption bill

Strength in numbers or getting 'in bed with the evil empire'?

Digital Rights Watch, the Human Rights Law Centre, Amnesty International and Access Now have joined forces with a number of industry bodies representing the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Telstra to reject the government’s so called ‘encryption bill’.

Under the name of Alliance for a Safe and Secure Internet, the newly formed coalition wants the government to ‘slow down, stop and listen’ and not pass the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 in its current form.

The bill – introduced into the House of Representatives earlier this month just 10 days after a public consultation on an exposure draft ended – includes measures that would require service providers to cooperate with law enforcement investigations, in some cases by building new tools to allow user security to be bypassed.   

Despite repeated denials from government that would force service providers to build backdoors and undermine encryption, a number of civil rights groups and technology companies have argued otherwise.

The Alliance said its formation was the result of the government’s reluctance to listen to its member groups. More than 14,000 submissions from concerned citizens and organisations were made during the consultation on the draft bill, but it was introduced into parliament little more than a week later with only minor amendments.

“It is crucial that lawmakers reject this proposal before we sleepwalk into a digital dystopia,” said spokesperson for the Alliance and Digital Rights Watch board member, Lizzie O’Shea.

The bill will now be reviewed by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. At present, only one day of public hearings has been scheduled.

“The rushed processes coupled with the lack of transparency can only mean that expert opinions from Australia and abroad are being disregarded and deep concerns about privacy erosion and lack of judicial review have simply been tossed aside,” O’Shea added.

‘In bed with the evil empire’

A number of civil rights and privacy groups are notably absent from the Alliance.

Earlier this month a joint submission in response to the draft bill was made by Digital Rights Watch, the Australian Privacy Foundation (APF), Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), the Queensland and NSW councils for civil liberties, Future Wise, Access Now and Blueprint for Free Speech.

Despite each being lobbied to join the Alliance, not all of the groups have done so.

Among their reasons not to join the coalition was the involvement of DIGI – Digital Industry Group Incorporated – an industry advocacy group whose members include Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter.

Many of the rights and privacy groups – including Digital Rights Watch – have been vocal critics of those companies in the past.

“We’re uncomfortable about being in bed with the evil empire,” Dr Monique Mann, from the APF told Computerworld.

“As a privacy advocate this is really crazy because Google, Facebook are the antithesis of privacy. Their entire business model is fundamentally built on exploiting people’s privacy, surveilling them, to sell stuff to them or target advertising at them.”

“This is completely at odds with our fundamental mission, and I don’t think we should be captured by the organisation that should be subject to our robust critique,” she said.

Mann on Tuesday resigned from the Digital Rights Watch advisory council because of its involvement with the Alliance and what she described as its refusal to listen to the council’s advice.

Both the Queensland and New South Wales councils for civil liberties have also refused to join.

“We don’t think that civil society groups should form alliances with commercial interests, it’s as simple as that…We have a different agenda,” said Queensland Council for Civil Liberties president Michael Cope.

Cope added that the councils often received requests for endorsements.

“We consistently refuse to do that, we don’t see it as our job to promote any business,” he explained.

EFA chair Lyndsey Jackson said her organisation was not joining the Alliance chiefly because it had not been given enough time to consult with its board and members.

The EFA did co-sign a submission opposing the proposed legislation with a coalition of 31 civil society organisations, trade associations and companies, which included Google, Apple and Microsoft.

Other groups are understood to have been concerned about ‘the optics’ of partnering with big tech companies.

Unified voice

The Alliance said it represents a “unique concert of voices…who sometimes disagree on policy questions, but have come together for the first time as a unified voice”.

“We’re [Digital Rights Watch] not the first civil society organisation to work with someone we’re not in 100 per cent agreement with. That’s a pretty standard tactic, finding a common cause and working together. We’ve had disagreements in the past and I’m sure we will in the future,” O’Shea told Computerworld.

“But for now it’s fine, because we can see the gravity of the bill and we all agree that it really shouldn’t be passed in its current form. So to that extent I think it’s been a good approach," she added.

The Alliance is now planning to host events in Canberra to educate and lobby lawmakers. The review hearing for the bill is expected to take place on October 19.

"[The formation of the Alliance] shows all lawmakers that are considering this bill that there’s very widespread opposition to it, so it might be worth taking the time and figuring out what the nature of it is and giving it proper scrutiny and consideration rather than just waving it through, which is my fear,” O'Shea said.

The members of the Alliance are: ACCAN, Access Now, Ai Group, AiiA, Amnesty International Australia, AMTA, Blueprint for Free Speech, Communications Alliance (without the involvement of member, NBN Co), DIGI, Digital Rights Watch, Future Wise, Hack for Privacy, Human Rights Law Centre, Internet Australia, IoTAA, and Liberty Victoria.

@georgepnott

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