Brandis ditches conference after disastrous data retention interview

Brandis ditches conference after disastrous data retention interview

Summary: Attorney-General George Brandis has pulled out of speaking at the Human Rights Commission's Free Speech conference today following a disastrous TV interview last night where he admitted that website visits would be included in mandatory data retention.

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Attorney-General George Brandis has pulled out of the Human Rights Commission's free speech conference today after a disastrous Sky News interview yesterday where he was unable to state clearly the definition of the metadata that telecommunications companies would be required to retain, and indicated website visits would be included as part of data retention.

brandis-ditches-conference-after-disastrous-data-retention-interview
(Image: Screenshot by Josh Taylor/ZDNet)

The government has faced criticism from telecommunications providers and privacy advocates since announcing the mandatory data retention policy earlier this week, that would see an as-yet-undetermined set of telecommunications customer data retained for an as-yet-undertermined amount of time for access by law enforcement agencies without a warrant.

The public and the telcos remain in the dark about what data will actually be required to retain, and iiNet has said that the system will add an extra AU$130 to every customer's internet bill every year.

Brandis, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have all given conflicting definitions of what data would be required to be retained, and in the interview yesterday, Brandis appeared to contradict statements from the Prime Minister's office earlier in the day that ruled out including web browsing history as part of a mandatory data retention scheme. Brandis said that while the data retention regime wouldn't include individual URLs, the government would like to retain a record of every individual website visited by Australian residents.

BRANDIS: It wouldn't extend for example to web surfing, so what people are viewing on the internet is not going to be caught.

HOST: It's not the sites you're visiting?

BRANDIS: Well, what people are viewing on the internet when they web surf is not going to be caught. What will be caught is the web address they communicate to.

HOST: Okay, so it's only — sorry, the web address, if I go to an internet site, that will be recorded and available?

BRANDIS: The web address is part of the metadata.

HOST: The website.

BRANDIS: The web address. The electronic address of the website.

HOST: Okay but if I go to the Sky News website, The Australian website, a more questionable website, is that what we are talking about here?

BRANDIS: Well, [stammering] the, what you're viewing on the internet is not what we’re interested in and that not what we regard as —

HOST: You'll be able to see whether I've been to that website, or that website or that website?

BRANDIS: What we'll be able, what the security agencies want to know, to be retained is the electronic address of the website that the web user is using.

HOST: It does tell you the website.

BRANDIS: It tells you will the address of the website.

HOST: That's the website, isn't it. It tells you what website you've been to.

BRANDIS: Well when you visit a website people brows from one thing to the next. That browsing history won\t be retained or there won't be any capacity to access that.

HOST: Excuse my confusion here, but if you are retaining the web address, you are retaining the website, aren't you?

BRANDIS: Well, every website has an electronic address, right?

HOST: Yep and that's recorded.

BRANDIS: When a connection is made between a one commuter terminal and a web address that fact and the time of the connection and the duration of the connection is what we mean by metadata in that context.

HOST: But that is telling you where I've been on the web?

BRANDIS: It records what web — what electronic web address has been accessed.

HOST: I don't see the difference between that and the website —

BRANDIS: When you go to a website commonly you will go from one web page to another, from one link to another and another within that website. That's not what we are interested in.

Brandis also indicated that the government was also considering how social media can be involved in such a scheme, as well as Skype, Google Chat and FaceTime.

The attorney-general has faced criticism over the handling in the interview since it was aired, and although he was due to give a speech to the Human Rights Commission's Free Speech Symposium in Sydney today, Brandis pulled out at the last minute.

ABC reported that Brandis pulled out of the conference to attend a memorial for the victims of the MH17 attack.

Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs today told the conference that in the days since the mandatory data retention announcement, the government had moved away from advocating free speech to limiting free speech in the name of national security.

"There's been a radical reversal of the public debate from the protection of free speech," she said.

Brandis himself was originally against the retaining of website browsing history as part of mandatory data retention. In opposition as part of the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security in 2012, Brandis said it was unlikely that the electorate would accept such a proposal.

"The public would accept a level of mandatory data retention in relation to telecommunications. They would accept the logic of the regime being technology-neutral and therefore reaching the internet. But my political judgement is that there is no way in a million years that the public would not react very strongly against a proposal unless they were absolutely guaranteed that their internet browsing history or use would not be the subject of the mandatory data retention regime," he said at the time.

The former National Security Legislation Monitor Bret Walker told ABC's Lateline program last night that mandatory data retention should require agencies to obtain a warrant before that data could be accessed.

"Collection and storage is not a problem. The period of collection and storage obviously raises questions of expense and responsibility and security, because accidents happen," he said.

"If those matters can be looked after, and that will require a balance and the industry will no doubt be very concerned with all of that, then the question comes: how can it be used? And in my view, the model should remain that there is a need for a warrant."

The Australian reported today that Brandis will be meeting today with Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who has been noticably absent since the mandatory data retention announcement, in an attempt to rectify the government's mishandling of the announcement.

Topics: Privacy, Government, Government AU, Australia

About

Armed with a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Journalism, Josh keeps a close eye on the telecommunications industry, the National Broadband Network, and all the goings on in government IT.

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4 comments
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  • Oops!

    Dropping out of a conference because he said things in an interview that contradict official government policy strikes me as a bit extreme, though. The brave thing to do would be to forthrightly explain and defend his position (after explaining that he's speaking for himself, rather than for the Government as a while), but I don't know if Westminster-style conventions allow that.

    You'd think that a seasoned politician wouldn't shoot himself in the foot like that, but here in the States, our Vice President has been notorious throughout his 42 year political career for doing the same thing.
    John L. Ries
  • Turnbu cabinet not as pliable but would retain public confidence in Govt

    Thanks Josh. When political propaganda fails like this it is no wonder why Murdoch relies so heavily on his direct media propaganda machines. Murdoch's political puppets might be willing to support the man they owe their jobs to but even with such a debt owed they simply do no have the knowledge base or intellectual capacity to support the Murdoch cause. There are intelligent Tories. A Turnbull cabinet may not have been as pliable for Murdoch but they would have been clever enough to convince Aussie's that the majority of their bills were in the country's best interests. Abbott and Co cannot bluff through that what they espouse are their own ideas and they are not smart enough to hide that it is all for Murdoch's own interests.
    Jade W
    • Turnbull in a china shop

      Mr. Turnbull might well be the more intelligent sort of tory you think Australia needs (and I've always thought we need honest, intelligent people on all sides of the political debate), but he strikes me as being utterly tactless and somewhat disingenuous.

      But I'm an American and not accustomed to following the careers of Australian politicians.
      John L. Ries
  • Brandis embarrised once again.

    Brandis reminds me of mumbles the Dick Tracy character. The way he stammered through his explanation of metadata was not what you would expect from a person in his position. Maybe he has been influenced by the way Tony Abbott stammers his messages out.
    Not being able to communicate with the electorate was a big problem for the previous government and it sure looks like nothing has changed with this one except maybe, this one is far more secretive and certainly not transparent.
    It's no wonder this Abbott government didn't talk about their policies when they were in opposition. To do so would have shown how amateur, dumb and dishonest they really are.
    Lastofthegoodguys