A top bureaucrat from the Federal Attorney-General's Department said that Telstra, Optus and Vodafone were "wrong, wrong, wrong" in thinking that new requirements for telecommunications interception were onerous.
The telcos presented at a Senate Estimates hearing yesterday, opposing portions of a Bill to amend telecommunications interception legislation, making it easier for law enforcement to wiretap new technology as it emerges.
Regulation chiefs from the country's two largest telcos took issue with Schedule 2 of the Telecommunications Interception and Intelligence Services Legislation Amendment Bill, which requires that telcos provide the Attorney-General's Department with 30 days notice before adopting or selling new telecommunications equipment or services.
"It will damage our ability to compete globally," Telstra regulatory operations manager Michael Ryan told Senate Estimates.
"We believe Schedule 2 goes beyond and places a large reporting burden further on industry, when in fact the interception plan appears to be working at the present time."
The schedule applies to internal architecture changes, new products and services including cloud computing. It toughens existing requirements that telcos need only report changes affecting interception every five years.
It seems telcos like Telstra that sell cloud computing services will get a raw deal over their non-telco competitors: multinational cloud computing vendors like Google and Amazon will dodge the need to report while telcos wishing to offer the services will need to adhere to the tougher reporting requirements.
The scale of service change that occurs in cloud computing would mean filing a lot of reports, the telcos said.
"I could not quantify the amount of change we go through," Optus regulatory compliance and safeguards manager Michael Elsegood said. "It's a lot".
"[Cloud] service can be supplied overseas but if we get caught up by this process, it will [be difficult] if we want to make [services] easy for customers."
In its last five-yearly report to the department on changes that would affect interception, Telstra identified 104 new considerations. Of those, 17 were new changes that would likely affect interception and 87 were changes that Telstra believed would have no impact on interception or would be handled by the telco's "existing capabilities".
Elsegood said Optus' engineers and managers already meet weekly with the department's engineers to discuss topics including security and interception.
According to the Attorney-General's Department, despite the telcos' belief that the new legislation would be onerous, the amendments would not be much of a burden.
"They just need to write a letter or advise us [of changes]," the department's national law and policy first assistant secretary, Geoff McDonald, said. "All they gotta do is give us a letter, and outline some of their plans — it's not burdensome."
Asked to respond to the claims by the three telcos that the amendments would be imposing, McDonald said: "They're wrong, wrong, wrong."
"They must think we want them to provide a whole prospectus or something like that. It's the most general description about what they are doing — it's there to help them."
He told committee chair Senator Trish Crossin that clarifications to the amendments will be considered, but added that the department had already been criticised for "excessive verbiage in Bills".
The amendments were also attacked by Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim, the Australian Privacy Foundation and the NSW Law Council during the inquiry.
It received rubber-stamp support from the Australian Federal Police, which noted that "there is nothing worse than to see criminals escape conviction because of technology".