A battle is brewing between telecommunications companies and the Federal Government over further national security laws.
The Coalition wants to force telcos to do more to protect their networks and infrastructure from attack and have the power to directly intervene in the companies when there is a security risk.
The telcos are worried those powers are too broad, too intrusive and give Government unfettered access to their documents.
The proposed changes to the Telecommunications Act put a greater obligation on telcos to secure their assets, but it is not clear to telcos what that exactly means, what changes they might be required to make or who would bear the cost.
The new laws would also give Attorney-General George Brandis and his Department the power to demand telcos follow their orders:
The Communications Alliance, the body representing the sector, is critical of the draft laws.
“We think it’s adding unjustifiably, significant additional and intrusive powers to Government, when a more collaborative approach might be a better alternative,” chief executive John Stanton said.
“There’s no actual requirement to consult with the service provider that’s about to be hit by this order and there’s no apparent right of appeal against those sorts of decisions.
“We think the balance has been a bit lost there.”
The laws, as drafted, would also compel telcos to hand over any documents or information requested by the secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department.
There’s no limit on how long the information or documents could be held for or who it could be passed on to.
The ABC understands several major telecommunications companies have complained to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Government intervention should be ‘light touch’
Telstra is calling on the Federal Government not to be so heavy handed.
“We share the Government’s goal of ensuring Australian telecommunications networks are secure,” Telstra’s chief risk officer Kate Hughes said.
“But the powers, as they are proposed, are quite broad and potentially impose substantial costs on Australian telcos and our customers.
“We are best placed to manage security issues on our networks, therefore, any Government intervention should be light touch and principles-based.
“We have a clear commercial incentive to maintain the security of our networks and protect our customers’ data, so we have already made significant investments in security and these need to be recognised.”
Greens communications spokesman Scott Ludlam has echoed those sentiments, albeit a little more bluntly.
“I think the last thing we would want to see is Commonwealth bureaucrats telling computer security experts who run these big telecommunications companies how to run their networks and their data centres,” he said.
He was concerned about the role of the Attorney-General, who infamously struggled to explain what metadata was when being interviewed about other national security laws.
“The last thing you want is George Brandis telling you what hard drive you have to buy,” Senator Ludlam said.
Greens call for intervention
Mr Stanton said this proposal was a step too far, given telcos had already made significant and expensive changes due to new metadata retention laws and new copyright protection provisions.
“It’s certainly an expensive period for the telcos sector,” he said.
“With each of these national security-related initiatives by the Government, there seems to be an assumption the telecommunications sector will simply foot the bill for a big chunk of that.
“Ultimately, that’s to the disadvantage of the competitiveness of the Australian industry but also to the consumers who are at risk of having to foot some of that bill themselves.”
The ABC understands there is division within Cabinet about the reach of these proposed laws, with AM reporting a conflict between the Communications Minister and the Attorney-General.
The Government is still taking submissions on the proposal and there is growing expectation the Attorney-General may have to water down some of the provisions.
The Greens say the Communications Minister should intervene.
“I’d like to hear from Minister Turnbull, to hear whether he’s got a view about what happens in his portfolio or whether the Attorney-General is just going to run roughshod over all of it,” Senator Ludlam said.
A spokesman for the Attorney-General said the proposed laws stem from bipartisan recommendations from a parliamentary committee and releasing the draft laws is part of an extensive consultation process.