The Australian government has opened up discussions with telecommunications companies over what data they would be required to retain under the mandatory data retention proposal announced by the government on Tuesday, as the ministers responsible for the proposal continue to struggle to explain the policy.
Attorney-General George Brandis 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, with Brandis, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop all offering differing definitions of the so-called "metadata" that would be required to be retained under the scheme.
In an embarrassing interview last night, Brandis indicated that while the content of websites people were visiting wouldn't be retained, a record of the sites visited by all Australian residents would be required to be retained.
But in his first public comments since the policy announcement on Tuesday afternoon, Communications Minister Turnbull today backed away from the definitions provided by his fellow ministers, telling Bloomberg TV this afternoon that the policy was still in development.
"I think the commentary has gotten ahead of the policy," he said.
"I'm working closely with the attorney-general to review our arrangements relating to mandatory data retention. Metadata is a term that can mean different things to different people, so what we've got to do is get to the end of our consultation, conclude the very, very clear parameters of our policy, and then explain it and justify it.
"I'm sorry I can't give you the outcome of the policy formation process, but we're in an iterative process, we're on a journey and until we get to the end of that, it is difficult to be much more specific than that."
Telecommunications companies are concerned that depending on the amount of data required, they will be required to foot the bill for the mandatory data retention regime, and that will be passed on in higher costs to consumers. iiNet has said it could cost customers AU$130 each per year for data retention.
Turnbull said that he had already met with telcos today for discussions about the scheme "at considerable length and in great technical detail." He said that the next plan would be to meet again with them this afternoon with Brandis.
The decision on who pays for data retention would depend on what is retained, Turnbull said.
"If, for example, the outcome of this is no more than there will be a law that requires the telcos to retain the type of data they're already retaining anyway, then there is no additional cost, or somewhere between no cost and very little cost," he said.
"If on the other hand telcos are required to record, store, and make accessible new classes of data in large volumes, then there obviously will be significant cost, and then you've got the question of who should bear that cost, and in what proportions."
Just hours before the policy was announced on Tuesday, however, Turnbull told the ABC that there were potential issues with mandatory data retention.
"There are formidable problems associated with — technical problems," he said.
"It's a very complex issue. There are technical questions, there are issues of privacy and security. No one said government was easy, and this is just another one of those difficult exercises we've got to deal with."
In a joint statement released today, Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare and Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus said Turnbull needed to be more involved in the process.
"Labor is concerned that Attorney-General George Brandis is out of his depth and doesn't understand the policy he is charged with developing. During an interview yesterday with David Speers on Sky News Brandis showed that has no idea what he is talking about," the MPs said.
"He rambled, stammered and clearly fails to understand the concepts that underpin the scheme he is proposing to impose on Australians. Malcolm Turnbull, the man that Tony Abbott believes 'virtually invented the internet', might need to be called in with a whiteboard and some butcher's paper to give Brandis a lesson."
Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm told the Human Rights Commission's Free Speech conference in Sydney today that the data retention proposal represented a threat to freedom of speech.
"We will all pay for the privilege of having ASIO plus a host of other organisations trawl through our communications," he said.