Australia's dark year for digital liberty

Data retention, site blocking and three-strikes laws highlight 12 transformative months for online freedom in Australia. We reflect on the year's key moments in the words of the major players involved.

Claire Reilly Former Principal Video Producer
Claire Reilly was a video host, journalist and producer covering all things space, futurism, science and culture. Whether she's covering breaking news, explaining complex science topics or exploring the weirder sides of tech culture, Claire gets to the heart of why technology matters to everyone. She's been a regular commentator on broadcast news, and in her spare time, she's a cabaret enthusiast, Simpsons aficionado and closet country music lover. She originally hails from Sydney but now calls San Francisco home.
Expertise Space, Futurism, Science and Sci-Tech, Robotics, Tech Culture Credentials
  • Webby Award Winner (Best Video Host, 2021), Webby Nominee (Podcasts, 2021), Gold Telly (Documentary Series, 2021), Silver Telly (Video Writing, 2021), W3 Award (Best Host, 2020), Australian IT Journalism Awards (Best Journalist, Best News Journalist 2017)
Claire Reilly
6 min read

Image by CPOA, CC BY-ND 2.0

This week, one of the most significant pieces of anti-piracy legislation in recent years passed through Parliament, allowing rights holders to force ISPs to block overseas websites on a court order.

The "Online Infringement" Bill has been labelled a win for Australia's creative industries and rights holders, but critics have slammed it as "a drastic remedy and a blunt tool" that equates to nothing more than an Internet filter.

But while the laws have received their fair share of criticism, the dissent was not enough to stop their steady and seemingly inevitable passage through Parliament. Furthermore, the Copyright bill was the fourth piece of legislation in under a year to put government agenda ahead of civil liberties.

The past year has played out as a grinding Parliamentary procedural drama (though not one you'll likely see optioned with TV rights any time soon). New laws to increase regulation of digital activity in the name of national security, changes to the copyright act to crack down on piracy, and the directive to telecommunications and internet providers to store petabytes of metadata on every single Australian for two years.

The day-to-day machinations have been a mess of technical jargon, legislative speak and political patois. But each small change and seemingly insignificant comment has painted a much broader picture: a changing digital landscape, increased power over our digital lives granted to law enforcement, and pockets of the internet that could soon go dark.

Now take a trip down the road to Australia's digital future in the words of those behind the wheel...

May 30, 2014: Government puts 'three strikes' piracy notice scheme on the table
The first hint of a piracy crack-down appears when the Attorney-General's Department confirms that a three-strikes scheme is "one option" being considered by the Government.

June 24: "="" over="" site="" blocking"="" shortcode="link" asset-type="article" uuid="6c9103b7-5989-42b8-92f3-27ed596e1d48" slug="copyright-holders-control-freaks-says-iinet-on-piracy" link-text="Service provider iiNet fires a missive at " section="news" title="Rights holders are 'control freaks peddling futility-on-a-stick,' says iiNet" edition="us" data-key="link_bulk_key" api="{"id":"6c9103b7-5989-42b8-92f3-27ed596e1d48","slug":"copyright-holders-control-freaks-says-iinet-on-piracy","contentType":null,"edition":"us","topic":{"slug":"internet"},"metaData":{"typeTitle":null,"hubTopicPathString":"Internet","reviewType":null},"section":"news"}">
"File sharing is a multi-headed hydra that government filtering and legal threats will never slay... Let's not buy into the 'futility-on-a-stick' that Hollywood is peddling in Canberra."
(Steve Dalby, iiNet)

Village Roadshow came under fire for delaying the release of "The Lego Movie". Facebook/Roadshow Films

June 26: "="" in="" piracy"="" shortcode="link" asset-type="article" uuid="eaba86c8-5071-4b5e-b6cf-fd04a6677ba7" slug="village-roadshow-says-iinet-is-complicit-in-piracy" link-text="Hollywood strikes back, saying ISPs are " section="news" title="Village Roadshow says iiNet is " edition="us" data-key="link_bulk_key" api="{"id":"eaba86c8-5071-4b5e-b6cf-fd04a6677ba7","slug":"village-roadshow-says-iinet-is-complicit-in-piracy","contentType":null,"edition":"us","topic":{"slug":"internet"},"metaData":{"typeTitle":null,"hubTopicPathString":"Internet","reviewType":null},"section":"news"}">
"iiNet are selling a car which happens to kill people on the roads, so they should be paying towards that."
(Graham Burke, Village Roadshow)

July 17: Government introduces first national security bill targeting computer networks
"[The Bill enables ASIO] to obtain intelligence from a number of computers (including a computer network) under a single computer access warrant."
(National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014)

July 25: Leaked Government whitepaper reveals anti-piracy agenda
"The Government recognises that this is not an issue that is susceptible to easy solutions."
(Online Copyright Infringement Discussion Paper)

August 5: Government Committee supports data retention on national security grounds"[We need legislation] to ensure that we are best able to monitor potential terrorist activity in this country. Obviously with the usual range of safeguards and warrants."
(Prime Minister Tony Abbott)

August 6: PM defends collection of metadata
"It's not the content of the letter, it's what's on the envelope...It's not what you're doing on the internet, it's the sites you're visiting."
(Prime Minister Tony Abbott)

Attorney-General George Brandis has led the charge for mandatory data retention in Australia. Image by CeBIT Australia, CC BY 2.0

August 7: George Brandis fumbles metadata definition
"What people are viewing on the internet when they web surf is not going to be caught. What will be caught is the web address they communicate to."
(Attorney-General George Brandis)

August 8: Turnbull cleans up the mess
"One of the difficulties with a term like 'metadata' is that it can mean different things to different people. The security agencies are not seeking that the Government require telcos to keep a record of your browsing history."
(Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull)

August 27: Australian Securities and Investment Commission admits mistaken request to block 250,000 websites
"The ASIC teams requesting...blocks were not aware that a single IP address can host multiple websites."
(ASIC submission to Inquiry into subsection 313(3) of the Telecommunications Act 1997)

September 1: Telstra reveals 75,448 warrantless metadata requests
"We are obliged to act on lawful requests for our customer information."
(Telstra Transparency Report)

September 9: ISPs slam 'three strikes' scheme at open piracy forum
"We could end up playing whack-a-mole if we do this."
(David Buckingham, iiNet)

Australian Federal Police

September 24: "="" national="" security="" bill="" introduced"="" shortcode="link" asset-type="article" uuid="428831ce-c906-48ab-bd28-53bd421094f0" slug="anti-terror-laws-propose-data-retention-and-no-knock-warrant-powers" link-text="Second " section="news" title="​Anti-terror laws propose data retention and 'no-knock warrant' powers" edition="us" data-key="link_bulk_key">
"[The AFP] would not be required to notify operators of computers not on search premises if data held on those computers is accessed under the warrant."
(Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014)

October 1: First National Security bill passes
"With one single warrant ASIO could spy on any device connected to the Internet anywhere in the world." ( Greens Senator Scott Ludlam)

October 22: ""="" shortcode="link" asset-type="article" uuid="c8c74faf-96e2-41cd-95e8-9691e7641494" slug="afp-using-site-blocking-laws-to-target-malware" link-text="AFP admits blocking websites " section="news" title="AFP using site blocking laws to target malware" edition="us" data-key="link_bulk_key">
"[The AFP] considers releasing specific details publicly...may have a substantial adverse effect on the proper and efficient operations of the AFP."
(AFP submission to Inquiry into subsection 313(3) of the Telecommunications Act 1997)

October 22: iiNet fights Dallas Buyers Club in court over customer information"We are concerned that our customers will be unfairly targeted to settle any claims out of court using a practice called 'speculative invoicing'."
(iiNet Blog)

Dallas Buyers Club. Focus Features

October 30: Government introduces Data Retention Bill"Providers will not be required to keep detailed location records that could allow a person's movements to be tracked, akin to a surveillance device."
(Malcolm Turnbull)

October 30: Foreign Fighters Bill passes
"This provision would enable the tracing of a suspect's Internet activity."
(Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014)

October 30: Police eye off metadata as a way to target pirates
"Illegal downloads, piracy, cyber crimes, cyber security...our ability to investigate [these matters] is absolutely pinned to our ability to retrieve and use metadata."
(AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin)

December 10: Government announces site-blocking bill, calls for industry piracy code
"If you are asking me is it possible for, say, Pirate Bay to then move to another IP address or another URL for that matter, of course that is true...There's no silver bullet here."
(Malcolm Turnbull)

January 12, 2015: "="" after="" paris="" terror="" attacks"="" shortcode="link" asset-type="article" uuid="5950f7d0-c491-469a-8069-17ab8dd7b70f" slug="brandis-data-retention-an-urgent-priority-after-paris-terror-attacks" link-text="Brandis renews calls for data retention, post 'Charlie Hebdo' attack" section="news" title="Brandis: ​Data retention an " edition="us" data-key="link_bulk_key">
"The free and democratic West in particular faces a profound threat that is likely to be with us for a long time...Access to metadata is vital to investigate terrorism and organised crime."
(George Brandis)

January 22: Attorney-General's Department rejects need for metadata warrants
"Warrant applications are resource intensive, and can take days, if not weeks, to prepare and complete."
(AGD submission to Inquiry into Data Retention)

Image by Abhisek Sarda, CC BY 2.0

January 29: "="" by="" fax"="" shortcode="link" asset-type="article" uuid="4de9450d-21c3-4b34-8fe1-7aef396eb670" slug="we-live-in-the-dark-ages-telstra-metadata-requests-fax" link-text="Telstra reveals metadata requests come " section="news" title="​'We live in the dark ages': Telstra reveals metadata requests come via fax" edition="us" data-key="link_bulk_key">
"We live in the dark ages, unfortunately."
(Kate Hughes, Telstra)

February 16: Opposition Leader responds to global terrorism comments in relation to data retention
"I am disappointed that recent media briefing has sought to politicise the development and consideration of anti-terrorism legislation."
(Letter from Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to Prime Minister Tony Abbott)

February 19: Data retention a 'small price to pay' for freedom
"We need this legislation. And if we don't get it, it will be a form of unilateral disarmament in the face of criminals and the price of that is very, very high indeed."
(Tony Abbott)

March 19: PM proposes warrants to access journalists' metadata
"The principle of freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy, a proposition about which I myself, as a former working journalist, need no reminding."
(Tony Abbott)

March 26: Data Retention Bill passes
"Tony Abbott and Labor have done a back-room deal on Internet and smartphone surveillance laws and are saying to the public and the parliament, 'Just trust us'."
(Greens Senator Scott Ludlam)

MPs Andrew Wilkie, Adam Bandt and Cathy McGowan voted against data retention legislation. Screenshot by Claire Reilly/CNET

April 1: Warnings VPNs could get caught in site-blocking net
"VPNs operating in a grey area...there's a good chance that they could get caught up in the proposed rules."
(Nicolas Suzor, QUT School of Law)

April 7: Court grants Dallas Buyers Club access to iiNet customer details
"The ruling will put a major dent in the process and business case behind speculative invoicing, since the financial returns could be outweighed by the costs of legal action."
(David Buckingham, iiNet)

April 20: Film studio warns site blocking is vital
"Pirate sites are a sleazy neighbourhood which our children go to and they are selling hardcore pornography and scams such as party pills and steroids."
(Graham Burke, Village Roadshow)

May 15: Australian Border Force added to list of agencies with access to metadata
"The Australian Border Force wants to be able to scrape people's home and email records and find out who they have been talking to and where they were."
(Senator Scott Ludlam)

21 May: Dallas Buyers Club puts more pirates in its sights
"This is the first 4,000 IP addresses of what could be a reasonably substantial number."
(Ian Pike, Counsel for Dallas Buyers Club)

June 22: Website-blocking laws pass Parliament
"The bill is vaguely drafted and...aims to protect rights holders at everyone else's expense, which is not how the rule of law is supposed to work."
(Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm)