New Australian Law Would Permit Unlimited Government Internet Spying, Jail Time For Journalists

CREDIT: AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin

The Australian government is primed to give the nation’s spy agency unfettered access to citizens’ computer networks and potentially put journalists in jail thanks to drafted national security reform laws passed by the country’s Senate Thursday, The Sydney Morning News reported.

The Australian Senate passed an anti-terrorism bill called the “National Security Legislation Amendment Bill” that would give the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) more power to monitor Web traffic. If finalized, the law permits ASIO agents to search and monitor an unlimited number of computers on a particular network based on a single warrant request. Journalists, bloggers and government whistleblowers could also spend up to 10 years in prison for revealing details of intelligence operations, as part of the law. The bill is set to be voted on and approved by Australian’s House of Representatives next week.

According to The Sydney Morning News, anyone who divulges classified information related to intelligence operations, or identify ASIO agents can be sentenced to 10 years in jail. The proposed penalties are a dramatic increase from the current punishment on the books of a year’s jail time for offenders, according to the news report.

Opponents of the pending legislation believe the bill’s language is too broad, and gives the government free license to spy on the Internet as a whole.

“A network can essentially be anything from three computers on a Wi-Fi modem to potentially an entire corporate network or an entire internet service provider network or at the extreme end the whole internet,” Jon Lawrence, a member of Electronic Frontiers Australia, a digital rights group, told The Sydney Morning News.

Australia’s sweeping computer surveillance bill rings similar to the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) program exposed by former contractor Edward Snowden in 2013. Snowden’s document leaks detailed the NSA’s spy efforts monitoring Internet and social media activity, emails, and metadata from phone calls to track targets. A report from The Washington Post in July showed that 90 percent of the emails the NSA collected were from ordinary citizens.

While Snowden’s revelations galvanized citizens and governments abroad and in the United States to tighten privacy laws and, in some cases cut business ties with the U.S., other countries have clamped down on Internet freedom in effort to curb crime and terrorism. Before Australia’s bill, neighboring county New Zealand’s parliament passed similar legislation. The law passed in 2013 and gives the government backdoor access to all of the country’s telecommunications networks, and the ability to intercept communications. Both Australia and New Zealand are a part of the Five Eyes, an intelligence sharing pact between the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Governments worldwide have boosted up efforts to censor the Internet to prevent political uproar despite a call for more freedom online. About 30 countries have tightened press freedom since 2009 with another third of the observed countries restricting online speech, according to a report from democracy watchdog agency, Freedom House. For example, Russia increased its Internet regulation in May when it passed its blogger law that requires bloggers with large followings or popular posts to register with the government. China has a similar law in addition to its widespread Internet surveillance and censorship efforts.