Abbott agrees to warrants for journalists' metadata access

​Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has agreed to introduce an amendment to the government's proposed data-retention legislation that will require law-enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant for access to journalists' metadata.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has bowed to demands by opposition leader Bill Shorten that the government's proposed data-retention legislation include additional protections for journalists' metadata.

In a letter dated March 16 from Abbott to Shorten, the prime minister said that although the government does not believe that it is a necessary measure, it will agree to introduce an amendment to the data-retention Bill requiring law-enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant for access to journalists' metadata.

"I have decided that a further amendment be moved that will require agencies to obtain a warrant in order to access a journalist's metadata for the purpose of identifying a source," Abbott said in the letter. "The government does not believe that this is necessary, but is proposing to accept it to expedite the Bill."

Abbott said that he would move the new amendment in order to expedite the passage of the Bill, which needs the support of the Labor opposition to pass the Senate.

The prime minister's move to amend the legislation comes after Shorten sent him a letter asserting that Labor did not agree with the government's view that a lower level of review for accessing journalists' metadata was appropriate.

"We reserve the right to move amendments to the data-retention Bill to protect journalists' sources at the appropriate time," said Shorten in the letter, dated March 15.

The proposed Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014 will require telecommunications companies to retain all customer non-content communications data -- such as call records, assigned IP addresses, billing information, download volumes, and other so-called metadata -- for two years for warrantless access by law enforcement.

In late February, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security (JPCIS) looking into the legislation made 39 recommendations in relation to the Bill.

It recommended the establishment of a two-year period for metadata retention; that the government make a "substantial contribution" to the costs of creating the regime; and that the data set to be retained and agencies able to access the metadata be set out in legislation.

However, it recommended that it also take an additional three months to establish recommendations referring to the thorny issue of accessing the metadata of journalists in order to identify a source.

One of the agencies included in the legislation, the Australian Federal Police, has refused to confirm whether any journalists have been the subject of telecommunications data requests in the past.

In response to his concession to Labor's request of extra oversight measures for agencies' access to journalists' metadata, Abbott's letter on Monday asked for Shorten's assurance that the opposition will support the Bill, and for Labor's agreement to the discontinuance of the further PJCIS inquiry.

Earlier today, 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.

Attorney-General George Brandis said in question time on Monday that the legislation, as it stood prior to the proposed amendments, did not represent a threat to journalists.

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

Brandis 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.

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