The tech industry has slammed the government’s Assistance and Access Act for putting Australian jobs at risk, as Labor promised to amend the controversial law when parliament resumes next week.
Speaking at a Safe Encryption Australia event in Sydney on Wednesday, Atlassian co-founder and co-CEO, Scott Farquhar said the legislation would have an adverse effect on Australia.
“We’ve got to recognise this law threatens jobs,” Farquhar said.
“The fact is that the jobs of the future - these high paying jobs, export dollars that we bring to Australia, largely in technology - are at risk because of the laws that have been passed.”
He also took aim at the consultation for the legislation, which was widely-stated to have been rushed.
Atlassian was originally told the regulations would apply only to “telecommunications companies and messaging apps”, Farquhar said.
When the software giant requested that the legislation be amended to represent this, it was told it may be extended in the future “in case people are doing things outside of messaging apps”.
“We should either be consulted if it does apply to us or it should be written so it doesn’t apply to us,” Farquhar said.
“We’re in a weird situation now where people are saying ‘trust us, the law won’t be used in that way’… and that’s a really difficult spot to be in.”
Farquhar also addressed some of the further concerns around TCNs, which could require employees to secretly create new capabilities for the government or face punishment.
“There’s a saying: don’t assume malice when incompetence will suffice,” he said.
“I don’t think the government’s intent is to conscript people. I think that the legislation is just so poorly written that that becomes the outcome.”
Shooting ourselves in the foot?
This was not something lost on non-executive chairman of Australian encryption company Senetas, Francis Galbally.
“In the form that it’s in at the moment, and if it doesn’t get changed, this legislation will force our company to go offshore,” Galbally said.
“I think we should be promoting our IT industry, not ruining it.”
Senetas specialises in end-to-end encryption technologies, with its solutions now used in 35 countries around the world.
Galbally also highlighted the disconnect between the stated aims of the legislation and the practical consequences.
“Yes, we want to get terrorists, yes, we need national security and we need our agencies to have the tools in order to catch the wrongdoers,” he said.
“But really? Are you going to catch somebody that has committed an offence which they’ll go to jail for just three years?
“It’s overreach and overkill.”
Galbally announced that he was “pleased” with Labor’s proposed amendments, but suggested there was more to be done.
Pushing customers away
Chief of staff at email provider FastMail, Nicola Nye, said the laws pose a fundamental roadblock to her company’s service.
“FastMail is an email hosting company,” said Nye. “The contents of our entire lives’ are stored on email, it is the gateway to your bank, it is the gateway to your online shopping as well as all those other cat pictures and personal remembrances.”
“As a company that is quite fundamentally focused on people’s privacy rights, because their email is so full of deeply personal information, we want to make sure that our government doesn’t undermine our entire organisation.”
She also indicated the changes had started to push customers away.
“Our Twitter feed has been full of people saying, ‘I am leaving your service’ or ‘should I even join your service?’”
“We can’t even visibly fight back, because that introduces reputational damage – if we go out in public and try and forcefully say, ‘hey, what is this law doing?’, then that’s going to cause more people to leave our service and trust us less.
“There’s been damage to the business already and it’s only been two months.”
Reform, reform, reform
Also in attendance was Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy, Ed Husic, who outlined his current stance on the legislation, after Labor helped pass the ‘Encryption Bill’ through parliament in chaotic circumstances last December.
Husic started by addressing the elephant in the room.
“One of the things you’ll be thinking is, ‘we wouldn’t have these laws if you didn’t vote for them in December,’” he told the audience.
“Our view was to give something to the security agencies in the short-term, with the commitment that was given to us by the other side of politics that the amendments that had been put forward, that had been fashioned on the basis of 17 recommendations from the bipartisan parliamentary committee would be debated and given effect in the following year – this year.
“This did not happen. We said that we would make sure our amendments were consistant with those 17 recommendations, we expected to be able to debate them and that did not occur.”
Husic detailed efforts so far to debate reforms in the Senate and outlined the Labor party’s plans for the legislation.
He called for changes that would prevent government or law enforcement agencies from “injecting systemic weaknesses into encryption”.
Additionally, Husic called for stronger regulations around when a Technical Capability Notice (TCN) – which requires the creation of new capabilities – can be issued.
Currently, such a matter is referred for independent assessment by a panel consisting of a “technical expert and retired judge”.
“You need to have a dedicated judicial official, that is across these issues and knows the impact of the decisions that they will or will not make,” said Husic.
“We’re arguing that we need to have legitimate judicial oversight over this process as a handbrake on what is going on.”
He also proposed measures be put in place that require reporting around how many requests have been made and who they have been made by.
Husic went on to confirm that the mentioned reforms made up Labor’s official policy on the matter heading into the upcoming Federal election.