Anti-encryption law rammed through Australian parliament could impact global privacy


New law allows authorities access to end-to-end encrypted digital communications.

On 7th December 2018, Australia’s parliament passed the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 that will allow the country's intelligence and law enforcement agencies to demand access to end-to-end encrypted digital communications.

The law will allow the government to co-opt technology companies, device manufacturers and service providers into building the functionality needed for police to do their spying on criminal suspects. The list of acts or powers is long and includes “removing one or more forms of electronic protection, providing technical information, facilitating access to services and equipment, installing software, modifying technology, and concealing that the company has done any of the above”. If companies don't comply with the laws, they risk being fined.

As previously documented, human rights groups have warned that the measures are a disproportionate response to the security concerns which are its rationale, involving unjustified encroachments upon Australians’ individual privacy and potentially disastrous world-wide consequences for communications security”. 

According to critics it grants government inappropriate powers without adequate checks and balances and interferes in a particularly serious manner with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data. Additionally, if a company makes an access tool for Australian law enforcement, other countries will inevitably demand the same capability.

In October 2018, The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Joseph Cannataci, also raised concerns about the bill calling on the government to drop its "fatally flawed" proposed legislation that forces tech companies to help spy on citizens in various ways, including granting access to phones and other devices.

There is also criticism over how fast the law was passed. A draft bill was presented only in August 2018. A parliamentary committee examining the legislation did not release its report until 5th December 2018. The nation's top legal society, the Law Council of Australia, said that the laws had been "rammed" through the parliament with inadequate consideration.

In January 2019, Australian industry groups called on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which opened a review of the law, to undertake amendments including judicial consent for warrants. The committee is due to report back by 3rd April 2019.

Unions file legal challenge against electoral law

In December 2018, Unions NSW filed a legal challenge against the state government’s Electoral Funding Act, which restricts registered third-party campaigners to a spending cap of AUD 500,000 (USD 360,000) in the six months before an election. That case was given an urgent hearing in December 2018, with a decision needed before the 23rd March 2019 state election.

Unions NSW leader Mark Morey said the new rules are unconstitutional and "silence" more than 600,000 union members from advertising in both online and traditional media. He said the "fear of being prosecuted" would prevent unions, community groups and environmentalists from communicating and working together during elections.

Under the new legislation, multi-million-dollar union anti-privatisation campaigns, will be outlawed during elections. Campaigners who breach the cap face police investigation, and possible prosecution.

Government to review freedom of speech on university campuses

In November 2018, the authorities appointed a former chief justice of the high court, Robert French, to review the status of freedom of speech on Australia’s university campuses. The review will take four months, and French has been asked to assess the framework protecting freedom of expression and inquiry, including the multiple codes of conduct and enterprise agreements that govern campuses.

The request comes after a series of controversies on university campuses where students and academic staff have been accused of stifling public debates. In September 2018, students at the University of Sydney protested a speech by Bettina Arndt titled "Is there a rape crisis on campus?", which was hosted by the Liberal Club. La Trobe University had earlier blocked Arndt's speaking tour but reversed the decision.

Universities Australia, a body representing the sector, however has questioned why the review is necessary, saying campuses should be free of political interference. It said the country’s universities had more than 100 policies, codes and agreements that support free intellectual inquiry, ensuring a culture of lively debate and a vigorous contest of ideas.

Peaceful Assembly

'Invasion Day' protests draw thousands

Thousands of Australians attended "Invasion Day" rallies across the country on 26th January 2019 calling for a rethink of national day celebrations they say are disrespectful to indigenous people. The annual Australia Day holiday commemorates the arrival of the first British settlers in 1788, but for many Australians it marks the beginning of colonial oppression of Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people remain the most disadvantaged Australians, with higher rates of poverty, ill-health and imprisonment than any other community. Divisions have deepened in recent years with increasing calls to change the date.

Several thousand joined the annual march in Melbourne chanting "Always was, always will be Aboriginal land", and holding placards saying "Australia is a crime scene". Thousands more joined similar demonstrations in major cities around the country, calling for a change of date, or for the day to be abolished altogether.

Melbourne’s “Invasion day” rally was marred by far-right nationalists who attempted to hold a counter rally at Federation Square. Right wing nationalists reportedly got into a scuffle with demonstrators, with some holding Australian flags. One couple were carrying a placard reading “To defend my country was once called patriotism now it’s called racism”.

Thousands of students protest against Adani coal mine's launch

On 8th December 2019, thousands of students took to the streets of Australia's main cities in their latest protest against the planned launch of a coal mine in Queensland state by Indian conglomerate Adani. The protesters called on the government to halt the coal mining project, whose construction according to Adani would begin "imminently".

Protest organisers, Stop Adani, estimated that 15,000 people had joined the marches across the country, while the Australian Youth Climate Coalition said that 5,000 people had marched in Melbourne alone. The rallies followed last week's demonstrations urging action on climate change, which saw 15,000 school students walk out of class.

As previously documented, Indian multinational Adani bought the Carmichael coal mine in northeastern Australia’s Galilee Basin in 2010. The project has faced constant opposition within Australia, with activists describing the campaign against the Carmichael mine as “the biggest environmental movement” in the country’s history.