Telcos demand Commonwealth stump up for data retention

The CEOs of Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, iiNet, Macquarie Telecom, M2, and others have signed a letter demanding Australian Attorney-General George Brandis and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull detail how much the government is willing to pay for the mandatory data-retention scheme.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

In a letter signed by the CEOs and executives of Australia's most prominent telecommunications companies, the industry has demanded that the government provide certainty around how much it is willing to pay for the mandatory data-retention legislation.

The Australian government is pushing to have legislation passed this fortnight that would force telecommunications companies to retain all customer call records, IP addresses, email addresses, text message data, and other communications information for two years for warrantless access by law enforcement.

The Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security made 40 recommendations for amendments to the legislation that the government has adopted and will introduce in this sitting period.

The committee was not provided with details on the cost for the scheme developed in consultation with PricewaterhouseCoopers, but the government has said that it will cost the industry at least AU$300 million to set up systems to store and provide access to the data securely.

The government has said that it will make a "substantial contribution" to the cost imposed on telcos for the scheme, but has yet to spell out exactly how much it will contribute.

In the letter sent to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis on Monday, the CEOs called on the government to provide "a degree of certainty as to the size of the government's planned contribution (and the planned methodology for apportioning those funds between [telcos] of differing type and market shares)" before the legislation has passed parliament.

The executives -- including Telstra CEO David Thodey, Optus chairman Paul O'Sullivan, Vodafone Australia CEO Inaki Berroeta, iiNet CEO David Buckingham, M2 CEO Geoff Horth, and Macquarie Telecom CEO David Tudehope -- said any costs above and beyond the government's contribution would be passed on to their customers.

"In light of these factors, we believe it would be reasonable action on the part of the government to -- at the very least -- provide a firm indication of the government contribution, expressed as a percentage of the final determined cost," the executives stated.

The letter indicated that the industry still hasn't been given certainty that it would get funding after the initial set-up of the systems for mandatory data retention.

"We will continue to discuss with government the issues associated with capital maintenance and operational costs," the letter stated.

It comes as Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on Monday indicated that Labor may seek to amend the legislation to add a protection for journalists. Under the current legislation, there is nothing to prevent government agencies from accessing the telecommunications records of a journalist to attempt to determine the source for a story.

When asked in Question Time on Monday whether the legislation presents a threat to journalists, Brandis said it does not, and said he would not delay the passage of the legislation in time for a parliamentary committee to report back on the threat posed to journalism by mandatory data retention.

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

He 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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