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'You bunch of idiots': Australia's tech industry savages Labor for backing the government's encryption bill

Simon Thomsen
  • Last Thursday, as the parliament rose for 2018, controversial new laws that allow Australian security and law enforcement angencies to hack into encrypted messaging services were passed with support from the ALP.
  • While legal and human rights experts are concerned about their impact, the Australian tech industry fears the laws create such a risk for the global tech sector that it spells the death knell for its long-term viability domestically.
  • In an open letter to Labor over letting down 'the entire industry', the sector called Shorten and the Opposition "a bunch of spineless weasels".

Hundreds of Australian tech industry workers have launched a scathing attack on Labor and its federal leader Bill Shorten after the opposition capitulated in the final hours of the 2018 parliamentary sittings last Thursday to pass the world's first laws allowing local law enforcement to compel tech companies to provide access to encrypted messaging services.

Labor initially announced it would amend the bill, arguing it needed further safeguards. But after a farcical day of politics, which saw the Coalition government slow debate in the Senate and then shut the House of Representatives early rather than lose a separate vote, the tactics meant any further amendments to the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 would not be considered until next year.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his ministers went on the offensive, accusing Labor of being soft of pedophiles and terrorists for not backing the encryption bill as proposed, despite the fact that the government added around 170 amendments that morning.

With Labor facing the prospect of being blamed for any terrorist attack over the Christmas period -- even though the new message hacking bill won't be in place by that time -- Shorten and Labor let the bill pass in the Senate without their amendments, pledging to revisit the laws in early 2019.

The legislation has raised alarm in legal and human rights circles, as well as the global tech industry, especially because it includes the possibility of government security forces co-opting a company's tech staff to hack into its messaging service without notifying the company involved. If the employee notifies their boss, they face jail.

An open letter, titled "You bunch of idiots", addressed to Shorten and Labor and published online, begins "words cannot describe how angry we feel after your gutless and spineless decision to blindly support the Government's so-called "Assistance and Access Bill" (#aabill)" calling the Opposition "a bunch of spineless weasels".

More than 7000 people have now added their names to the letter within 48 hours of it being made public.

"All of you had doubts about the law. You said that it was rushed. You said that it was flawed. And yet, you still let it through," it says.

"You let us down. You let the entire industry down."

The letter labels the legislation "destructive and shortsighted" saying the tech community can no longer support Labor because of its backing for it.

The letter argues it weakens security for everyone, made it impossible to export Australian tech services "because no-one wants a potentially vulnerable system that might contain a backdoor" and made it harder for international companies to hire Australian talent.

"Companies such as Amazon, Apple, Atlassian, Microsoft, Slack, Zendesk and others now have to view their Australian staff and teams as 'potentially compromised'," the open letter says.

Because it violates the EU's General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), they add the encryption bill "just locked Australian companies and startups out of a huge market".

You can read the full open letter here.