NBN Co: Huawei FOI could harm national security

NBN Co has blocked an attempt to gain access to several documents relating to security concerns about Huawei and its tenders for the NBN, stating that it could undermine the government.

Exclusive: In March, it was revealed that the Australian Government banned Chinese-owned network vendor Huawei from competing for contracts with the National Broadband Network (NBN) on the advice of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). Huawei has long been under scrutiny, due to concerns that Huawei president Ren Zhengfei is a retired major in the People's Liberation Army.

The office of the attorney-general said at the time that it has the responsibility to protect the integrity of the AU$35.9 billion network and the information carried on it, and Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that the decision was "prudent".

ZDNet Australia filed a number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests with the government and NBN Co relating to this decision. ZDNet Australia sought access to emails and memoranda or briefs relating to security concerns over Huawei tenders dating back to 1 January 2010.

(Screenshot by Josh Taylor/ZDNet Australia)

The first eight documents relate to NBN Co board meetings discussing NBN equipment, procurement and contracts, and the Attorney-General's Department told NBN Co that disclosure of these documents could "reasonably be expected to cause damage to the security of the Commonwealth" and "could result in harm to national security".

The last two documents are briefings from NBN Co's head of corporate Kevin Brown to the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, and an email from Brown to NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley. Access to both of these documents was also denied, because they related to Huawei's tendering efforts with NBN Co for GPON equipment. As NBN Co plans to purchase up to AU$1.5 billion in GPON equipment in the future, NBN Co found that releasing the documents relating to this contract could have a negative impact not only on the deal, but also on the tender makers.

Additionally, NBN Co stated that the release of the two documents from Brown could undermine the government's policy position on Huawei tendering, given that the government has not disclosed its reasoning behind the Huawei ban.

"To date, the government has not publicly disclosed specific reasons as to why it excluded Huawei from participating in tender bids to NBN Co. As such, the government's and NBN Co's 'deliberative processes' have not yet been finalised. As such, the release of [the documents] through FOI processes could have the effect of undermining the minister and the government’s current policy position/s."

It is not the first time that NBN Co has blocked access to documents under FOI exceptions. Internode was denied access to the full details of the $11 billion deal between NBN Co and Telstra, because it related to NBN Co's commercial activities.

ZDNet Australia plans to appeal NBN Co's decision to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC).

NBN Co's handling of FOI requests came under review by former justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria Stuart Morris QC; this review was completed on 30 June, but has not yet been made public.

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