It took a while but Fairfax finally lumbered into action today on the remarkable proposals to dramatically expand government surveillance of Australians that are before the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, editorialising that intelligence agencies needed to explain why they want to retain Australians’ internet data, after its security specialist Dylan Welch had covered the proposals yesterday.
Yesterday the ABC also provided some detailed coverage; every specialist IT outlet had already covered the proposals in detail on Tuesday and Wednesday, after Crikey broke the proposals on Monday afternoon. A quick reprise of the proposals: the government wants to undertake some sensible housekeeping amendments relating to ASIO, the establishing legislation for which is showing some definite whiskers. But the government has also put on the table, for consideration, proposals including:
keeping all Australians’ telecommunications and internet data for 2 years;
wiretapping Twitter, Facebook and other social media;
allowing ASIO to plant material on people’s computers, and destroy material, and go through a third party’s computer to do so;
criminalise refusing to cooperate with government decryption attempts, so you could go to gaol for refusing to surrender your password;
freeing up ASIO agents to break the law if it helps them stay undercover; and
enabling non-ASIO intelligence agencies to work with ASIO to spy on Australians.
News Ltd’s papers, apart from recycling a single AAP piece today, have said nothing, a failure that is thoroughly perplexing. Here is a Labor government proposing draconian extensions to surveillance powers. What better opportunity for the bastion of “campaigning journalism” that loves nothing more than monstering Labor? There isn’t even a need to confect a target for a campaign, as News Ltd did with the BER program And yet… silence. It’s all the more bizarre given the company is in the throes of a furious campaign against the alleged threat of government regulation to freedom of speech.
If News Ltd and its dimwit spear-carriers like Janet Albrechtsen are to be believed, the proposals arising from the Convergence Review and the Finkelstein Inquiry are only one step short of Soviet re-education camps. Yet Labor wheels out a real threat to free speech far more sinister than a mere public interest test — our intelligence agencies, after all, have a sterling record of spying on journalists — and… nothing. How about the Institue of Public Affairs, who can normally be relied on to stand up free speech and attack regulatory overreach… or for that matter regulatory reach full stop? Not a squeak.
The issue was considered unworthy of the institute’s weekly round-up of left-wing outrages. How about Andrew Bolt, who if nothing else is hyper-sensitive to parliamentary threats to free speech, having been the victim of an appalling legal assault on his own? Nothing. Why has the Right gone missing on a clear and present threat to basic rights? Where’s the mistrust of government and readiness to go over the top when we actually need it in response to a clear and present danger? Is it because the issue of online freedom is somehow perceived to be one of the Left, despite its strong libertarian dimensions?
You don’t need to be of any particular political orientation to be offended about these proposals, and offended by the reasoning used to justify them. The justification used in the discussion paper, and it was one repeated by Joint Committee member Andrew Wilkie yesterday, is that our surveillance framework needs to be updated to address the move from the telecommunications to the internet era. That reasoning is, to use my favourite Greinerism, a nonsense.
The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act hasn’t been left gathering dust on the legislative shelf since before the arrival of the internet. It’s been updated regularly in the last decade - more years than not have seen an amendment to that act or an extension of ASIO’s powers in our parliament. In fact, bizarrely, it’s the very frequency with which the acts have been updated that the discussion paper insists is all the more reason for an overhaul (and expansion) of the whole régime (yes, I’ve thought and re-thought through that and I can’t understand it either). The other reason it’s a nonsense is a more subtle one that intelligence agencies and politicians neither want to understand nor will accept.
The proposals to start wiretapping social media use, store your data, control communications infrastructure and lock you up when you won’t cough up the password to your laptop or phone are classic War On The Internet measures. They seek to re-impose analog-era control structures on a world fundamentally altered by interconnectedness. In the analog world of wiretapping telecommunications (which originally was, literally, sticking an alligator clip onto a wire), citizens had virtually no means of communications except a government-controlled telephone system — recall the grand days of dictatorships shutting down phone lines to the outside world at moments of crisis?
There was no network, no connectedness for citizens, because they could never talk to more than one person at a time, making their interaction easy to monitor. That single, controllable piece of copper linking people one at a time has been replaced with a network that connects everyone to everyone else, globally, simultaneously. But governments want to still employ the copper-era control mechanism, as if nothing has changed except the technology.
The technological change is trivial compared to the social change being wrought across the world, which those who were in control in the analog era don’t understand and want to keep at bay. And the urge to keep control and monitor is coupled with an ever-stronger refusal to share information with citizens; governments want a surveillance state for everyone but themselves; they insist on their own right to operate in secrecy. The luxury of redaction is only for governments, not their citizens.
This is far less about being Left or Right than about being wrong, fundamentally wrong, about how our societies and the way we function in them are changing. It’s that change these measures are aimed at stopping and controlling.