'Red tape' Bill takes out reporting for telco customer data disclosures

The Australian government's 2014 'Spring Repeal Day' could see the removal of the Australian communication watchdog's unwarranted data request disclosure and reporting requirements.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor

The Australian government's Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Deregulation) Bill 2014, which was published on October 23 as part of its larger move to cut government red tape, is set to remove a number of record-keeping and reporting obligations imposed on telecommunications providers in relation to authorised disclosures of information or documents.

If the Bill passes parliament without any amendments, it will see the repeal of the Australian Communications and Media Authority's (ACMA) requirement to include the reporting of "statistical information relating to documents disclosed under Division 3 of Part 13 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 in its annual report".

This includes information disclosed in cases where its use is in connection with the operation of an enforcement agency — with the disclosure authorised under a warrant, or in "any other case" the disclosure is required or authorised under law. Telcos report to the ACMA any time they hand over customer data to Australian government agencies under the current law.

The repeal of this section of the Australian Communications and Media Authority Act 2005 would effectively prevent the authority from publishing the number of warrantless requests for metadata by law enforcement agencies in its annual report.

Earlier this month, the Australian communications watchdog revealed in its 2013-14 report that government agencies' warrantless requests for data had exceeded 500,000 for the financial year ending June, up to 563,012 requests in total.

By contrast, the Attorney-General's Department reported that for the financial year ending 2013, the number of requests topped out at around 300,000.

In removing the requirement for telcos to report the number of disclosures they make, the public will only be made aware of the number of disclosures relating to a individual member of the public made by non-ASIO government agencies through the Attorney-General's Department's own report.

The Bill also calls for the removal of record-keeping legislation in the Telecommunications Act 1997 requiring carriers, carriage service providers, or number-database operators to provide disclosure reports to the ACMA if information or a document is disclosed during a given financial year.

Under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, government agencies can force telecommunications companies to hand over details about their customers, including address, phone number, IP address, call data, SMS data, and other held information without a warrant for the purpose of enforcing the law.

In February, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull flagged that the ACMA had identified 280 pages' worth of legislation that could be repealed on its first "Repeal Day" in March.

The deregulation Bill also calls for the repeal of the entire Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency Act 2012, which was brought in to establish the government's Universal Service Management Agency (USMA), which has had the task of entering into contracts with and make grants in order to deliver public interest telecommunications services on behalf of the government.

The government announced that it would scrap the agency in its 2014-15 Budget, delivered in May.

Among the services delivered to Australians through the agency's contracts and grants is the national relay service for hearing-impaired people, untimed local calls in rural and remote areas, the Emergency Call Service, and assistance in the migration of voice services to the National Broadband Network (NBN).

Along with the removal of the legislation backing the TUSMA, the deregulation Bill also calls for the repeal of the entire Telecommunications (Universal Service Levy) Act 1997, which imposes a levy to fund the universal service regime.

The Bill also reduces the regulatory burden of telecommunications legislation through amendments to the Do Not Call Register Act 2006, the Telecommunications Act 1997, and the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in parliament yesterday that numbers on the Do Not Call Register would remain on the register forever, instead of eight years as they are currently. He said that the government would also repeal legislation forcing customers to have backup batteries for the NBN, although the move to optional battery backup came from NBN Co two years ago.

The government said that the move lowers the cost burden on business and consumers by AU$6.9 million a year while maintaining "necessary consumer safeguards".

The introduction of the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Deregulation) Bill 2014 to parliament is just one part of the government's 2014 "Spring Repeal Day" (PDF), set for October 29, which will see it repeal nearly 1,000 pieces and more than 7,200 pages of legislation and regulation.

The federal government said it repealed over 10,000 pieces and 50,000 pages of legislation and regulation during its 2014 "Autumn Repeal Day".

The government said that the total net deregulatory savings to date from the new legislation comes to more than AU$2.1 billion.

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