Thursday, 23 August 2012
Privacy Amendment (Enhancing Privacy Protection) Bill 2012; Second Reading
I am particularly pleased to be able to speak on the Privacy Amendment (Enhancing Privacy Protection) Bill 2012. I really want to put this bill into its historical context, to look at the principle it is addressing and then to deal with the substance, in those three phases.
Let us begin with the context. In a perverse way, this bill traces its way back to Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries, to the waves of history which came from the Renaissance. The first wave, of course, was the knowledge revolution and the democratisation of knowledge through the printing press and the gradual period of enlightenment where there was a physical ability to transmit ideas on a relatively mass scale. There was a willingness and an openness which emerged from the closed period of the Dark Ages in terms of the intellectual culture. That in turn contributed in no small way to the industrial revolution, the steam age and the way in which production was spread through mechanisation, with all of its upsides and all of its downsides. But in my judgement there has been an extraordinary march of history through the mechanisation of food production, through the massive productivity gains and through the electrification process, which is arguably the single biggest indicator of longevity and quality of life in our world today.
That then leads us to what I would regard as the third of the great ages, which is the age of communication. We have the technology in terms of the equipment, the democratisation of communication and the ability for each and every person to become an active publisher. People can be engaged in the process, which spreads across many different aspects of our lives. That historic context leads us to the great issues of privacy and protection. In a sense, we have to be honest about the trade-offs that we face. In many cases they align so that we can ensure that privacy and protection are given. Sometimes they conflict. I want to briefly place this bill in the context of weighting and the principles that apply to the balance between privacy and protection across the fronts of national security, commercial information and social engagement.
In terms of national security, mass communication and the democratisation of publishing through phones, iPads and all of the different online platforms as well as the general world allows us to know what is going on. We simply need to look at the fact that any person anywhere in the world with access to internet capabilities, from whatever platform, can now zoom in and be aware that there is a submarine base at Hainan, which would previously have been known only to a few. Only a few years ago this was unknown, inaccessible. Maybe the powers that be in the conclaves of US and other security agencies had the information, but now any person anywhere can tune in to much of what is happening with Chinese security in terms of the new submarine base that is being constructed in a subterranean cavern. They can access material about the United States.
It is an interesting question. There are strengths and there are weaknesses in that. But we also need to be aware that the national security issues in relation to the transmission of information through forces that seek to undermine society are real. So this is a great balance. There is a role for the ability to tap that information where it is in the national interest, but there have to be fundamental protocols around that. This bill is not so much about that space, but it moves into the second and third spaces of the commercial and the social.
The commercial benefit which flows from this era of instantaneous and ubiquitous communication capacity is this: it allows us to have access to the broadest range of goods at the cheapest possible prices from the widest range of sources. That is an unalloyed good. It may make it difficult for certain firms in certain places, but the net process is about democratising the process of buying, giving people access to the things that they seek and the ability to acquire them. It can be a great challenge for our retail community, but we have been through the transition from horse and buggy to car. We have been through the transition from black and white to colour. It is simply a historic fact through which we will have to pass and adapt.
But what in particular this means is that the process of online acquisition leads to the transmission of credit details, and it is absolutely critical that those credit details are protected, that they are not to spread around, precisely because of the examples that many have given.
There can be theft, abuse and spreading of information. The information that is fundamental to our lives is at risk of being spread throughout the world, to be misused for criminal purposes. It is at risk of being easily and lightly given to those who would exploit it for their own commercial ends. They simply break down individual privacy, in terms of people's purchasing habits and the sanctity and the freedom of their own personal space on the net and in their own homes. The stories of people receiving unwanted, pestering calls are legion. That is the great challenge. I firmly, clearly, absolutely come down on the side of privacy in that space.
The third of the areas in which we need to weight principles is social media. Again the foundation principle is privacy, but there is a criminal practice in relation to engaging in the online abuse, potentially leading to real-world abuse, of underage people. The practice of grooming is all too real. It is a significant problem, and every parent will be concerned about it. I have a three-year-old son who has mastered many of the details of the iPad. He is not alone; he is indicative of kids of that age. The technology has them engaged right from the start. That generation will evolve at a faster rate than we could ever imagine. There is a trade-off between privacy and security. Where there is any risk of younger people being exposed to risk to their personal security, that is where we must breach the veil of privacy and allow agencies to have access to material—to peek behind the veil of privacy—so there can be no risk at any time of an impact on any children that puts them in harm's way, whether in an online and digital sense or in a real-world and physical sense.
Those are the principles to which I apply the balance between privacy and security. I come down on the side of a slight erosion of privacy in relation to national security and personal security, but I do not see any basis for breaching privacy in relation to commercial security unless there is clear and manifest evidence of criminal activity.
Of the three areas I have spoken about, this bill deals overwhelmingly with the commercial. The bill seeks to do five things which are desirable. Firstly, it establishes the Australian Privacy Principles. They are a single set of privacy principles that apply to both Commonwealth agencies and the private sector. That is a good thing. Secondly, it introduces more-comprehensive credit reporting with improved privacy protections. I am particularly focused on the improved privacy protections, which fit the elements and principles that I laid out earlier. Thirdly, it introduces new provisions on privacy codes and the credit reporting code, including powers for the Privacy Commissioner to register those codes and to ensure that they are binding on specified agencies and corporations. In short, it is making sure that the watchers are watched. It is building in a layer of protection against state abuse. Fourthly, it clarifies the functions and powers of the Privacy Commissioner, including those used to resolve complaints, encourage the use of external dispute resolution services and conduct investigations. Finally, it ensures that there are penalties for contraventions by those who are custodians of commercial information and who seek to abuse that custodianship; in particular, it ensures that there is a duty of care and a responsibility for making sure that that information is not lightly or improperly passed on. If it is, there is a chain of custodianship that imposes obligations. I think that is entirely reasonable.
We are disappointed, however, that the government has not seen fit to allow to run the full processes whereby the House and the Senate can conduct their inquiries. I think that is a mistake and a breach of faith. We reserve our right to move amendments in the Senate on the basis of the great instruments of the people that are the parliament and committees examining and considering the bill and suggesting improvements to it. We will reserve our judgement on that front. At this point we think that the bill is worthy and valuable but that it can potentially be improved with the insights to be gained. I cannot see why the government has breached the faith and failed to allow those committees to have adequate time to conduct their investigations and present their findings and, therefore, potentially to make their recommendations. I think that is a mistake.
Having said that, this bill is part of a historic context. It fits in the course of action over the last 400 years, from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, through the Age of Knowledge, the Age of Steam and the Industrial Revolution to, now, the mass democratisation of communications. We have the challenge as representatives in this parliament of ensuring that the balance between privacy and protection is right. This bill tilts the balance in the commercial sector more in favour of privacy and less in favour of those who might wilfully or even inadvertently misuse the commercial information that has been given to them. For those reasons, I support and we support the bill.