Electronic Frontiers Australia: An Exclusive Interview with Jon Lawrence

Since its establishment, Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) has been one of the more influential, if not obscure, lobby groups in Australia. Founded in 1994, it’s been leading the burgeoning movement to secure what we now call “digital rights”, campaigning for privacy, copyright reform, and the free movement of information.

Earlier last month, EFA launched its campaign for this year’s Federal Election: ‘Digital Rights 2016’.

With the Government’s new meta-data laws, along with Snowden’s NSA revelations, renewing debate and interest in data privacy, Sydney Criminal Lawyers sat down with Executive Officer Jon Lawrence to talk about the organisation’s campaign – and the state of digital freedom in Australia.

“I’d come to the point where I’d lost interest in the commercial sector,” Mr Lawrence told us, “[Electronic Frontiers] became an opportunity to pursue my policy interests which range from fighting censorship to promoting copyright reform and all those things”

To start with, I was hoping you could tell us a bit about Electronic Frontiers Australia. When was the organisation set up, and why?

We were founded way back in January 1994 as a part of an international movement. There’s the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the US, they’re certainly the most well-known and the biggest, but there are related organisations in other countries as well.

The purpose of the organisation is to educate both the public at large, and also the political class and policy makers, about what we now tend to call ‘digital rights issues’ – that’s everything from online privacy and fighting censorship to more positive issues such as copyright reform and access to information and data.

Somewhat frustratingly, there’s a lot of similarity in the campaigns we’ve run since then. Every couple of parliamentary terms, people get enthused about various issues, and want to be seen doing something about the “bad things happening on the internet.”

It’s often to do with pornography, and there’s been a number of occasions where we’ve had to fight back on what badly conceived censorship programs – the most recent, and in many ways our most successful, campaign was against the Rudd Government’s mandatory internet filter.

That was ultimately successful for a number of reasons, and that’s probably the one that people will be most familiar with, but there have been other campaigns about privacy and other issues.

More recently, Governments seem to be moving away from digital reforms driven by that type of ‘moral outrage’, and toward increasing their powers for digital surveillance. What changes have you noticed?

From a local perspective, the biggest development has been the Mandatory Data Retention Scheme. It’s important to remember that that isn’t properly implemented yet and there’s still some significant issues that the Government is struggling with in that regard, but it’s still gone a lot further than similar schemes in other countries. That’s partly has to do with the fact that Australia lacks real constitutional protections for both privacy and freedom of speech, which gives the Government a lot more leeway here to push things, and it also means it’s a lot more difficult to challenge these sorts of things in court.

Internationally, there’s a big push to undermine encryption processes so that law enforcement bodies can get access to phones and computers they suspect are being used for terrorism and criminal acts, you may be aware of the recent Apple vs FBI case recently. Of course, the problem is that if you undermine encryption it undermines it for everyone, and that has some very serious repercussions for Government, who rely on encryption to do their bit, and I’d argue a pretty big threat to national security in itself.

So they’re two of the big ones at the moment from a state perspective, but of course there’s the ubiquitous commercial surveillance that’s also going on in the advertising space. While I think there’s an element of choice, it’s becoming less and less of a meaningful choice for most people, especially when they start seeing eerily targeted ads popping up on unfamiliar sites for something they searched half an hour ago.

Everything we’re doing is being tracked, and I think we need to be aware of that and take steps to make sure we don’t give up all our privacy in this increasingly digital context.

Some people would argue that there is a national security case for undermining encryption and for data retention. Even when it comes to commercial surveillance, it doesn’t sound that dangerous. Why does EFA think they’re concerning?

It’s in the nature of government, particularly intelligence and law enforcement organisations, to try and access as much information as they possibly can, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s appropriate.

Privacy is a fundamental human right, the problem is that it’s becoming routinely overwritten due to this fairly nebulous and meaningless term “national security”. There’s always this argument that it’s justified if it prevents just one act of terrorism, but individual privacy and civil liberties are fundamental to our liberal-democracy and we can’t protect them, which at the end of the day is the job of these agencies, by dismantling them.

I mean if you look at Europe, where they’ve pushed back particularly hard on this stuff, and you look at their recent history, you can understand the socially corrosive effects of routine mass surveillance. There’s a point at which we just have to draw a line in the sand and say “you can’t have access to everything.”

In the commercial sector, there’s much more scope for that to rebalance based on consumer power, and I think we’re starting to see that particularly based on rise of ad-blocking technology.

People are pushing back and saying that this isn’t ok, and they advertisers are having to reform their business models as a result, which is great.

EFA has a few other issues you’ve chosen to campaign on this election – what are you hoping to achieve come July 2?

The thinking behind the campaign, and we haven’t really kicked it off yet, is really just to get people thinking and talking about a few issues and get them a little bit further up the mainstream political agenda.

In terms of specific issues this election campaign, our other focus areas are going to be: protecting encryption; pushing back the more extreme parts of the data retention legislation; expanding the warrant system within that scheme that gives protection to journalists to cover the entire population; and getting some real and meaningful reform on copyright.

In many ways, we’re most likely to succeed with copyright because there’s a potential for bipartisan support. The Productivity Commission just released a report last week that recommended Australia move toward a more flexible fair-use copyright system, which is the basis of copyright law in the US and a number of other countries we identify as key competitors in the digital innovation space.

And lastly, what do you see as the future of the EFA – and your plans following the election?

As I said at the beginning, there’s a certain element of groundhog day to a lot of this, the same issues keep coming up again and again.

For example, there was recently a Senate Committee Inquiry into the ‘harm of pornography’ on the internet, and though we haven’t seen any recommendations come out of that committee yet, I suspect they’re likely to be similar to those from a similar committee in the UK.

That group has come up with some rather alarming ideas, such as doing age verification for pornography websites that’s linked to people’s electoral enrolments is alarming… I just don’t know what to say about it.

The imperative for governments, particularly for more socially conservative governments, is to try and impose controls on things like the internet, even though it’s perhaps against some of their other instincts. Those sorts of controls inevitably do far more harm than good, because the internet is essentially built to work around that sort of top-down control.

I think the key thing we need to do is to keep educating both the public, and in particular the policy making class. There are a number of particularly good, well informed people in Parliament, but they’re well and truly outnumbered by those that don’t have enough of an understanding of how things work to make good policies.

Thanks for your time.

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