Business groups, privacy advocates criticise government’s encryption bill rush

Major business groups push back against government call to cut short parliamentary scrutiny of encryption bill

Major groups representing Australia’s Internet and telecommunications sectors as well the broader private sector have called for the government to back away from its attempt to cut short scrutiny of a controversial bill.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said today that he wanted the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) to complete its scrutiny of the bill in question “as quickly as possible” and said he would “insist” on seeing the bill passed before the end of parliament’s next sitting fortnight.

The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 would boost police and spy agency powers to access electronic communications and is the government’s answer to complaints from law enforcement groups that they are struggling to access encrypted online services.

Critics of the bill argue that it will undermine the security of communications services used by millions of Australians, putting their privacy and online safety at risk.

A statement endorsed by Australian Industry Group, Australian Information Industry Association, Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, Communications Alliance, DIGI (whose members include companies such as Google, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook), Information Technology Professionals Association, Internet Australia and IoT Alliance Australia called on the PJCIS “not to scuttle the parliamentary process” by bowing to government pressure to “wave through” the encryption bill.

“The PJCIS must be given the time to thoroughly assess the valuable input it is receiving from experts and stakeholders,” said Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton.

“We all understand that the issues here are real — and that is why it is so critical that we get this right. A rushed and flawed piece of legislation is laden with the potential for unintended consequences that could act to the advantage of criminals and terrorists and to the disadvantage to Australians and Australian industry.”

The current bill “not only raises privacy concerns but stands to jeopardise the security of the Internet globally and the framework of trust required for it to function properly”.

Lizzie O’Shea from civil liberties group Digital Rights Watch criticised Morrison and home affairs minister Peter Dutton for “conflating terrorism with encryption”

“Law enforcement and intelligence agencies have considerable powers at their disposal to deal with the threat of terrorism and there is currently no evidence that strong encryption has hampered their efforts to do their job,” O’Shea said.

“In demanding a truncated timetable for this bill, the government is disrespecting the Australian people and treating parliamentary process with complete contempt,” she said.

Update: This evening the chair and deputy chair of the PJCIS, Liberal MP Andrew Hastie and Labor MP Anthony Byrne, respectively, issued the following statement: “The Intelligence and Security Committee has consistently functioned in a bipartisan way to ensure that Australia’s national security and law enforcement agencies have appropriate powers to keep Australia safe. Since 2014, the Committee has considered 15 substantive national security bills and made over 300 recommendations for amendment, all of which have been accepted by government. These reports have been carefully developed to ensure that new powers are proportionate and appropriately balanced with human rights and privacy, and that commensurate oversight and accountability is provided.

“The Committee will hold hearings next week with relevant agencies to hear evidence regarding the necessity and urgency of the proposed powers, as reported by some in recent press. The Committee will publicly announce any changes to the scheduled hearings as advertised.”

The PJCIS currently has public hearings on the bill scheduled for 27 November, 30 November and 4 December. The House of Representatives and Senate is expected to sit from 26 November to 6 December before rising for the year.

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