Telcos fear rushed data-retention laws

Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton said he is scared that the Australian government may be rushing in its attempts to force telcos to retain customer data for up to two years.

Rumours that Attorney-General George Brandis may look to introduce legislation to force telecommunications companies to retain customer data for up to two years as soon as October 20 are frightening, according to John Stanton, CEO of industry lobby group the Communications Alliance.

The organisation, as the representative group for the telecommunications industry, has been heavily involved in discussions with the Attorney-General's Department over the exact structure of a scheme that would force the ISPs to retain an as-yet-undefined set of customer data for access by government agencies such as the Australian Federal Police, Human Services, local councils, and the RSPCA for up to two years.

Speaking at the Communications Day Congress in Melbourne today, Stanton rejected recent statements by Brandis that the proposal wasn't anything more than what telcos are already retaining today.

"That is simply not the case," he said.

There have been two discussion papers put to the telcos since it was first announced, but the government has so far refused to release those papers to the public. Stanton said the telcos are working to refine the so-called data set for metadata that the government wants telcos to keep, and work out implementation issues to see if the scheme is feasible.

"The jury is out on that, at this stage. I'm not going to reveal the detail of the discussion we're having with the Attorney-General's Department; that would be unfair. They are working in good faith," he said.

"But we're a long way from a solution or an agreed package or anything at this point."

Yesterday, however, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam indicated that he expects Brandis to introduce legislation as early as the next sitting week, commencing on October 20. Stanton said that if this is the case, it is a frightening prospect.

"It scared the hell out of me, because when I look at where it appears to me to be at, at the moment, the notion that they could bring forward legislation in two weeks from now ... it appears to me unlikely, but if they do, I am scared about the process by which they get to that point."

Stanton said that in the discussions, telcos are seeking judicial oversight for data retention, and to limit the amount of time the data is held.

"It's well known that most of the data used by law enforcement agencies to fight crime tends to be three months or younger. Two years for all services is a requirement that, if put in place, moves the needle by hundreds of millions of dollars, in terms of what the industry and ultimately consumers will have to pay to support such a scheme," he said.

"And does so without any real science or rationale ... at the moment, the government is saying 'it's two years' because that's what [Prime Minister] Tony Abbott said when he announced it. Frankly, I don't think that's good enough."

Stanton said that some services, such as IPTV, which generate a lot of metadata with none of it useful to law enforcement, should be exempt.

The government has also not indicated whether over-the-top players such as Twitter would be captured by the scheme, and the cost and privacy implications have yet to be fully explored.

Ludlam yesterday called for Labor in opposition to stand up and oppose the mandatory data retention legislation when it is brought before the parliament.

On the government's proposals to crack down on online copyright infringement, Stanton said that there still exists a wide gulf between ISPs and rights holders over a graduated response scheme to warn users who are alleged to have illicitly downloaded TV shows and films.

"We're willing to have the discussion [but] I don't have a great deal of optimism around this," he said.

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