Data-retention warrant changes 'not necessary': Brandis

The deal between the Coalition government and the Labor opposition that would see law-enforcement agencies requiring a warrant to access journalists' metadata is unnecessary, Australia's chief law officer has said.

Australian Attorney-General George Brandis has admitted that the government agreed to an unnecessary tweak to its data-retention laws to ensure that they pass parliament.

The government wants telecommunications companies to keep customer metadata for two years for access by police and intelligence agencies.

Media companies wanted journalists exempted, fearing the laws could be used to expose whistleblowers and leakers.

The government and Labor have now agreed that a warrant will be required to access the metadata of journalists -- but the exemption won't apply to bloggers.

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Senator Brandis said the government agreed to the limited "but not necessary" exemption to ensure the draft laws cleared parliament.

He dismissed as "outrageous hyperbole" criticism from the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance that even with the changes, the laws are an attack on press freedom.

"This has never been about journalists," he said, adding that it is unlikely their sources would be involved in terrorism, organised crime, or pedophilia.

In Senate question time on Monday, just prior to the announcement that Prime Minister Tony Abbott had bowed to Labor's wishes, Brandis said that the original data-retention laws did not pose a threat to journalists.

"The same laws apply to all citizens, and they apply equally," he said.

The attorney-general also rejected the findings of a Dutch court, which last week struck down a mandatory data-retention law in the Netherlands, stating that it was an "inferior" court in Europe.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon described the need to obtain a warrant as a "tick-and-flick" process for authorities.

Instead, Australia should look at the meaningful protection offered to journalists in the US, he said.

The Greens have questioned why the government is going after journalists' sources at all.

"All that's happening here is the government has thrown something at the Labor Party to buy its silence," Greens Senator Scott Ludlam said.

Debate on the amended legislation is scheduled for parliament's lower house on Tuesday, and the government is hoping for Senate approval by the end of next week.

The metadata legislation is expected to return to parliament on Tuesday, complete with a number of amendments drafted from the recommendations of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security (JPCIS), which investigated the Bill.

However, while the legislation may pass parliament imminently, the JPCIS is due to report back in three months on the very issue that the government and the opposition have agreed to; namely, accessing the metadata of journalists.

On Monday, the CEOs of Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, iiNet, Macquarie Telecom, M2, and others signed a letter demanding that the government detail how much it is willing to pay for the mandatory data-retention scheme.

No cost for the creation of the mandatory two-year metadata-retention scheme has been made public, but the government has said that it will make a "substantial contribution", and expects that it will cost the industry at least AU$300 million to set up systems to store and provide access to the data securely.

The telco executives -- including Telstra CEO David Thodey, Optus chairman Paul O'Sullivan, Vodafone Australia CEO Inaki Berroeta, iiNet CEO David Buckingham, M2 CEO Geoff Horth, and Macquarie Telecom CEO David Tudehope -- said any costs above and beyond the government's contribution would be passed on to their customers.

"In light of these factors, we believe it would be reasonable action on the part of the government to -- at the very least -- provide a firm indication of the government contribution, expressed as a percentage of the final determined cost," they said.

With AAP

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