Ex-Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) CEO, Allan Asher, is set to take up the role of Commonwealth Ombudsman in the coming weeks, armed with a voice of reason and a charge to keep Australians' private data secure when it comes to any proposed data retention scheme.
In June, ZDNet Australia broke the news that the Attorney-General's Department was considering implementing a data retention regime in Australia, where internet service providers (ISPs) would be responsible for logging web history for Aussie netizens.
The proposed scheme has drawn the ire of many Aussie consumers, ISPs, politicians and industry experts over the safety of private information and has led to a Senate inquiry into online privacy in Australia.
Asher told ZDNet Australia that any complaints relating to the collection and handling of personal data by a government department would fall under his jurisdiction as the Commonwealth Ombudsman.
"The job of the ombudsman is to keep [government departments] honest across our jurisdiction. The government has set up the information commissioner's office to deal with the raft of privacy and freedom of information issues. If someone has a complaint against the privacy commissioner then that would fall into my jurisdiction and will be pursued," Asher said.
He made it clear that while the government would set the laws in relation to any data retention scheme, the Commonwealth Ombudsman would step in to investigate citizen complaints against government agencies.
Documents obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald in July relating to the proposed data retention scheme were heavily censored after the government aired concerns about the document provoking "premature, unnecessary debate".
Asher disagrees with the decision to censor the document, saying that potentially controversial policies like data retention are more readily accepted after a full and open debate on the issues.
"I think where people don't know what's being done in their name [there is] bound to be concerns ... I'm a great fan of openness of information," he said.
Asher has taken up the role as Commonwealth Ombudsman after just over a year as the chief executive officer of ACCAN.
In his first year as Commonwealth Ombudsman, Asher plans to address underlying problems that attract regular complaints against government departments, and to ensure that everyone gets an opportunity for their voice to be heard and their concerns to be met.
"The ombudsman has power to investigate things on its own initiative. [We] can have a look at systems in place and have a look at shortcomings and address them," he said.
In his time at ACCAN, Asher led a charge against policies such as mandatory internet filtering and called for increased transparency from consumer telcos.
When asked about his views on the proposed internet filter, Asher told ZDNet Australia that he isn't anti-filter, rather he is pro-consumer.