In Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull Branded Data Retention Laws ‘Expensive, Invasive, And Useless’


From the safety of Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull articulately laid waste to proposed data retention laws his government just implemented, writes Max Chalmers.

“Has the internet made us more free?” asked Malcolm Turnbull in 2012. “Or have we cast ourselves into a digital dungeon?”

It’s a question worth contemplating on the very day Malcolm Turnbull’s new data retention laws come into effect, with the new Prime Minister overseeing a huge expansion of the amount of information government agencies can access on us.

Without a warrant.

Turnbull’s query was posed in a speech he’d probably now like to forget, and in which, ironically, he argued for the right to forget our more regrettable digitally recorded moments – whether they be poorly thought out blog posts, embarrassing snaps of a drunken night out, or the expression of opinions that will later haunt us when we become Prime Minister.

He didn’t actually make that last point, but with some creative licence it seems fair to now interpret his words that way.

In remarks that slid from the perils of media regulation to the hazards of omnipresent digital recording for duplicitous politicians, Turnbull provided a heartfelt demolition of data retention, now a central policy of his own government.

It was emotive stuff. Turnbull evoked Big Brother, the Holocaust, and young lovers sharing their “rapture” on a park bench in making his case for online privacy.

Unfortunately, the soaring rhetoric doesn’t fly quite high enough to distract from how awkwardly it sits with Turnbull’s current position.

“This issue has been brought into sharp focus by the Attorney-General’s vague but, at face value, far-reaching plan to expand data interception, mandatory data retention, and government access to private digital information,” Turnbull said.

Hard to believe though it is, that’s not a reference to George Brandis.

Instead, in the gay abandon of Opposition, that was how Turnbull felt about then Attorney-General Nicola Roxon’s plans for data retention. Here’s the Freedom Squad over at conservative lobby-tank the Institute of Public Affairs telling us just how dangerous such a regime would be around that time. (the now Attorney-General does get a shout out in the speech when Turnbull references his view that freedom is “not simply one among several competing values but our core political value”).

On today of all days, the speech is worth reading in its entirety, but here are some choice extracts in which the Australian Prime Minister gives his future government a hearty beat down.


Data retention expensive, invasive, and useless

At the heart of Turnbull’s takedown was this paragraph on the data retention scheme Labor was putting together.

“Nor has there been an explanation of what costs and benefits have been estimated for this sweeping and intrusive new power, how these were arrived at, what (if any) cost was ascribed to its chilling effect on free speech, and whether any gains in national security or law enforcement asserted as justification for the changes will be monitored and verified should they be enacted.”

In case you missed it, Turnbull’s self-inflicted burn count in that paragraph is at least three.

Burn one: the questions of costs. As the Coalition’s data retention scheme kicks off, the confusion and complaints from telcos about the cost rages on. We still don’t know exactly how much of that will be passed on to Australian consumers. Storing and encrypting all that data ain’t free. The point has been a favourite for those taking a pragmatic stance against Brandis’ plan.

Burn two: the benefits of the powers. Another more serious contention raised by those opposed to the Brandis/Turnbull data retention scheme is that it won’t do the job it’s supposed to, namely help make us safer. The argument, proffered by those including Edward Snowden, says that by collecting data on everyone, regardless of their activities, spy agencies and police in fact make their own jobs harder. Collect too much hay and you bury the needle.

Burn three: “sweeping and intrusive” nature of the laws. Speaks for itself, really. Which is to say Turnbull speaks for himself, but only for the part of himself that existed before the 2013 election.


Our metadata reveals who we are

Brandis has been at pains, sometimes it appears literarily experiencing physically unpleasant sensations, to explain that the metadata his regime collects is less invasive than other data. Not so says the German Federal Constitutional Court, or Malcolm.

And here’s Turnbull again: “The German Federal Constitutional Court has recently struck down a similar data retention law noting that “meta-data” may be used to draw conclusions about not simply the content of the messages, but the social and political affiliations, personal preferences, inclinations and weaknesses of the individual concerned.”


Criminals will get away, citizens will be caught

“And what is to happen with data stored offshore,” Turnbull probed. “Google hosts much, if not most, of the relevant data for Australians. But none of it is hosted in Australia. Much of our voice and video calls occur now over IP services, like Skype or Google Chat. Is their customer metadata stored in Australia? Almost certainly not.”

This is still a big problem for those who argue data retention is effective in catching those up to no good. As it’s not too hard to get around, it seems more likely to scoop up unsuspecting citizens than savvy crooks.

“And finally – why do we imagine that the criminals of the greatest concern to our security agencies will not be able to use any of numerous available means to anonymise their communications or indeed choose new services that are not captured by legislated data retention rules?”

As Senator Scott Ludlam is always keen to point out, Turnbull has recently shared his own tips to beat data retention.


‘Grave misgivings’ about privacy implications

“Without wanting to pre-empt the conclusions of the Parliamentary Committee, I must record my very grave misgivings about the proposal,” Turnbull said, as Labor and Coalition MPs explored the plans.

“It seems to be heading in precisely the wrong direction. Surely as we reflect on the consequences of the digital shift from a default of forgetting, to one of perpetual memory, we should be seeking to restore as far as possible the individual’s right not simply to their privacy but to having the right to delete that which they have created in the same way as can be done in the analogue world.”

He called it “the latest effort by the Gillard Government to restrain freedom of speech”.


Without data retention, the internet is a wondrous place

In stark contrast to his immediate predecessor as Prime Minister, Turnbull does have a talent for talking in lofty terms.

“Just as the digital world has opened up new avenues for every form of freedom, so too it is freedom itself, our core value as liberals, which will continue to liberate the imagination,” he said in his remarks.

While data retention is here and some of our internet freedoms have been curtailed, at least we can still sit here in 2015 and freely imagine a world in which leaders follow up on their principles once in government.

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.