Data retention's 'chilling effect' on free speech

Human Rights Commissioner issues warning on "mass surveillance through data retention"

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson has warned that implementing mandatory data retention laws may deleterious effect on free speech in Australia.

"One wonders when you have a situation where mass surveillance through data retention may amount to having a chilling effect on free speech as well in the information we choose to seek and impart," Wilson told the Human Rights Commission's free speech symposium, being held today in Sydney.

Attorney-General George Brandis was due to address the same event this afternoon but pulled out to attend a service for the victims of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 disaster.

In addition to the embarrassing back down on the government's push to change section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, Brandis was last night soundly mocked for his attempt to defend the government's proposed data retention scheme in a Sky News interview.

In the interview Brandis trotted out the government's tired envelope-vs-letter metaphor and fumbled badly an attempt to clarify what metadata would and would not be retained under the government's planned legislation.

"What people are viewing on the internet when they Web surf is not going to be caught," Brandis said. "What will be caught is the Web address they communicate to."

"It wouldn't extend to for example Web surfing. So what people are viewing on the Internet is not going to be caught," the attorney-general told Sky News.

With regards to social media, Brandis said that "what has been decided is an in-principle decision and the extent to which social media will be involved in this is something that is under discussion at the moment".

Brandis' remarks seem to confirm comments yesterday by Prime Minister Tony Abbot that Web browsing histories would be retained under data retention legislation.

The PM made the comments in an interview on Channel Nine's Today show. Abbott described metadata as "not what you're doing on the Internet; it's the sites you're visiting."

"It's not the content; it's just where you've been so to speak and if you look at what's on the front of the envelope, it's the person you've sent it to, it's the person sending it, it's the date and it's the place that it's posted from," the prime minister said.

"This is information that as I understand it is typically already kept by the Internet providers and there's some risk that as time goes by and as technology changes this information will no longer be kept," Abbott said.