Brandis and the unspeakable metadata
George Brandis grills Roger Wilkins about the collection of internet metadata during 2012 Joint Committee Proceedings.PT0M0S 620 349
If only George Brandis had listened to ... George Brandis.
A day after the Attorney-General's train wreck interview, in which he attempted to explain details of his government's data retention policy, footage from 2012 has emerged of Senator Brandis questioning a similar proposal later shelved by Labor.
While Senator Brandis and Prime Minister Tony Abbott struggled to define in TV and radio interviews this week what metadata is and what ramifications its collection would have on internet and phone users under a data retention policy, in November 2012 the then opposition senator saw the issue a lot more clearly.
Attorney-General Senator George Brandis has concerns about data retention including web browsing histories. Photo: Andrew Meares
"I do not know how I can make this any more straightforward,” Senator Brandis told Attorney-General's Department officials in 2012, attempting to get a definition of metadata. "What this committee wants is a clear statement, which you can call a definition if you want ..."
He then said he wanted an assurance that content data, which he considered included browsing history, would not be retained.
"That is in the face of the evidence from the internet industry that you cannot do that; you cannot give that assurance," he said.
On Tuesday night, Sky News presenter David Speers was forced to repeatedly ask Senator Brandis for the government's definition of metadata and whether web browsing histories would be stored for warrantless access by law-enforcement and intelligence officials in criminal and financial investigations.
Senator Brandis stammered through the interview and said "web addresses" would be kept, but not individual web pages that a user visits. What this means remains unclear, although intelligence officials have told Fairfax Media that URLs people visit would not be stored.
"There is no way in a million years that the public would not react very strongly against a [mandatory data retention] proposal unless they were absolutely guaranteed that their internet browsing history or use would not be the subject of the mandatory retention regime," Senator Brandis said in 2012.
His two points - that the metadata needed to be clearly defined and that the public would require a guarantee their browsing history would not be recorded - appeared lost on him and other colleagues this week.
In 2012, under then Attorney-General Nicola Roxon's direction, Senator Brandis was involved with the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security when the Labor government asked it to consider whether telcos should be required to store internet and phone metadata for a period of up to two years.
Labor had put the committee in charge of investigating the proposal without indicating support for it, as law-enforcement and intelligence officials warned then that they would begin to lose access to metadata retained by some telcos if they weren't required to store it.
While the Abbott government has given "in principle" cabinet approval to the data retention policy, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Thursday that details of the policy were yet to be worked out.
"I'm sorry I can't give you the outcome of the policy formation process, we're in an iterative process, we're on a journey and until we get to the end of it it's difficult to be more specific,” Turnbull told Bloomberg TV on Thursday.
Although the Abbott government's floating of the data retention idea is similar to Labor's in 2012, Labor only put the idea before parliamentary inquiries for consideration and did not indicate support for it, while the Abbott government gave it the green light before divulging policy detail.
As it stands, Australian telco legislation doesn't define what metadata is, which adds to the confusion surrounding what ministers believe it to be.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said Senator Brandis and Mr Abbott needed to come clean on what data would be stored.
"We’ve seen ... the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General not even able to agree from one day to the next on what they had said that they had agreed in principle about their mandatory data regime," Mr Dreyfus said.
"The Australian people that deserve to be told what is proposed by the government in the national security area, particularly what is proposed by the government on mandatory data retention."