Australian tech community calling for change in legislation

Australia’s national advocacy group for startups is calling for the government to change legislation, which could force tech companies to help security agencies decode encrypted messages.

StartupAUS submitted a request that the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2018 should be limited to avoid crippling Australia’s technology sector.

The submission has received support from tech companies such as Atlassian, Canva and SafetyCulture, and VCs Blackbird Ventures and Airtree, according to StartupAUS.

The organisation made the four-page submission to the Federal Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) in early February.

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StartupAUS CEO Alex McCauley warned about the impact of the AA bill on Australian startups when it passed in the Senate on December 6, 2018.

McCauley said it put them “under a regulatory burden that is unique to them, and limits the level of security that Australian startups can develop”.

The submission outlines the urgent changes that are required to divest the government of “globally-unprecedented power to involve itself in the operations of technology companies”.

“Startups are critical to Australia’s economy. At a time when we should be developing and broadening our vision and support for them, the bill will jeopardise their standing with investors both here and abroad,” the submission stated.

The StartupAUS submission makes four key recommendations for the protection of both individuals and the tech industry:

1. Remove the possibility for TCNs to be issued to individual employees, to ensure that individuals are not targeted where a company is providing the service. While TCNs may only be issued to Designated Communications Providers, the bill’s Explanatory Memorandum states this can extend to individuals.

2. Reduce the breadth of organisations that may be regarded as a Designated Communications Provider. By broadly defining a Designated Communications Provider as any provider of electronic services with one or more end-users in Australia, this includes any technology provider that offers technology designed to connect to the internet, whether or not the service is designed to support communications as a market segment. The bill should only be applied to communications-based companies.

3. Increase oversight and provide limits on use. A bill of this scope must have checks and balances. The submission states: “The government must include an objective, merits-based review to ensure consistency regarding the exercise of powers under the Act.”

4. Reduce the broad basis for executing the powers of the Act. The bill should target high-stakes criminals but instead will weaken the security of law-abiding Australians using software. StartupAUS calls for a clearer definition of a serious offence, as currently defined in 317B of the bill: “The definition of ‘serious crime’ should be restricted only to those crimes which are the stated target of the Act, that pose a genuine and serious threat to Australia and its citizens.” On an equally important level, StartupAUS warns about applying the laws to international organisations providing digital services or operating R&D in Australia, stating: “Further, the ability to exercise powers in furtherance of other countries’ criminal laws should be withdrawn.”

McCauley, along with the submission’s signatories, reinforced that the bill is disappointing and should ideally be repealed.

Canva co-founder Cliff Obrecht said there needs to be assurance that international confidence in the Australian technology sector is not undermined by new legislation.

“We welcome a formal consultation to amend the Act so it is practical for our burgeoning tech industry, without cannibalising on our efforts to innovate,” he said.

StartupAUS is a not-for-profit organisation formed in 2013 by fifty leaders in the national startup community.

Its mission is to transform Australia through technology entrepreneurship.