Special Minister of State John Faulkner has flagged a revised timetable for the Government’s consideration of the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s recent privacy report.

Faulkner yesterday addressed the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre Symposium and indicated that the Government’s overhaul of the Privacy Act, focussing on the Commission’s proposed “Unified Privacy Principles”, credit reporting, health and new technologies, would take until at least the end of 2009, even though Prime Minister and Cabinet had already kicked off the process. Faulkner expects Cabinet to have settled on its approach to the ALRC’s recommendations by early next year.

The more contentious second stage of reforms — involving issues like a statutory right to privacy and the removal of exemptions from the Act for political parties, will be left until after the initial overhaul is completed. This means 2010, when it will become subject to election year turbulence. On that timetable, even if the Government agrees with the ALRC that people should be able to sue for privacy breaches, there’s unlikely to be any legislative change until 2011. Which might be handy for a government anxious not to buy a fight with Big Media in the run-up to its first bid for re-election.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that, for the second time in less than a month, John Faulkner has engaged on the issue of privacy in a way no previous Government minister has. In a speech in late August to the Privacy Awards and again yesterday, Faulkner has grappled with the problems of defining privacy in an online world and the treatment of privacy as an afterthought in policy development and new applications.

For Faulkner, the definitional challenge of privacy is resolved by empowering people to make their own decisions about what personal information becomes available — a theme that complements the Government’s focus on empowering and informing consumers. And, more nebulously, Faulkner wants a shift from privacy being addressed after everything else in new technologies and applications, to it being at the technological base, hard-wired into systems. To do this, he says, “we will need new and innovative ways of doing so, ways other than legislative fiat or paternalistic scolding.”

Quite what these new ways are, Faulkner doesn’t discuss. That’s the weak part of his speech — he doesn’t offer any solutions or flag the government’s general approach. But at least demonstrates he’s aware of and capable of analysing the problems. It’s refreshing for a senior government minister to demonstrate some of that actual intellectual rigour stuff in considering a significant public policy issue.

The big challenge will be convincing Faulkner’s Cabinet colleagues to pursue serious privacy reform in the face of what is likely to be substantial opposition from businesses, and in particular data miners and “customer information management” companies that make a motza out of collecting, manipulating and selling our personal data.

The biggest of them all, Google, is represented in Canberra by Gavin Anderson, but you can bet that others, like US-owned Acxiom, will also be arguing that existing privacy restrictions are already too much of a hindrance. Direct marketers will complain they’ve already been punished enough by the Do Not Call Register.

What’s the Coalition’s view on the ALRC report or privacy issues generally? No idea. Michael Ronaldson hasn’t troubled the scorers. Too busy counting numbers for Turnbull and fighting his Victorian Liberal Party enemies, perhaps.

Peter Fray

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