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Civil liberties advocates call for "the right to be forgotten" online

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties has argued that Australian internet users have "the right to be forgotten" online.

As a Senate Inquiry reviews Australia's Telecommunications law, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties has argued that Australian internet users have "the right to be forgotten" online.

The Council's comments came during a two-day public hearing as part of a Senate Inquiry on a potential revision of the Telco Act, being held in Canberra this week.

The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 (TIA Act) controls who has access to the content of communications (both in real-time and after the fact) as well as access to the data surrounding how this content is communicated, commonly known as metadata.

Both sets of data are only accessible in certain warranted situations by approved agencies, particularly in relation to criminal investigations. According to a report released last year by the Attorney General's Department, law enforcement and government agencies were granted access to this data a total of 319,874 times during 2012-2013.

The president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties Stephen Blanks today told the Senate Inquiry that Australians should expect that their metadata to be kept private and secure.

"Communications data should be treated in the same way as communications themselves," he said. "319,000 communications data authorisations being issued each year is a startling statistic. They're being issued for relatively minor matters.

"The premise underlying the current system is that communications data is not as private as communications content, and that premise is fundamentally wrong.

"People should be able to have a telephone account...without any number of agencies being able to know who they're calling or when they're calling," he added.

Blanks also called several major internet companies into check, arguing that while the likes of Facebook and Google might have certain privacy policies governing their users' data, these policies did not necessarily echo the attitudes of the general public.

"What Facebook thinks about privacy shouldn't be confused with what the community thinks about privacy," he said.

"Although social media provides fabulous communication tools for the whole of society...there is an expectation of people amongst the community that they have the right to control that information and who has access to it."

Blanks raised concerns that changes to the TIA Act could have serious consequences for the way Australians communicated online and the data that particular companies, government agencies and law enforcement agencies would be able to retain about these communications.

When it came to the kinds of data being retained by the likes of Google and Facebook, Blanks said these companies were "going beyond what [some Australians] would be prepared to countenance" and there were increasing calls from the public for legislation governing online data, allowing for "the right to be forgotten".