Comment: While you were staring at a dress all day on Friday, this happened

(AAP) Source: AAP

While most people argued back and forth about the colour of a dress, and which Lama wore it better, the Federal Government was given the green light to pass legislation enabling mass surveillance.

Unless you haven’t heard of the internet you probably spent at least a few moments on Friday trying to determine the colour of that dress, which caused a lot of online debate as to whether it was black and blue or gold and white. The original Tumblr post quickly went viral - epidemic even - and the media were quick to eat up a story that was dumped in their lap.

So, while that major news story went down throughout the day, this other thing also happened which most people ignored. The Australian Government released a report that waves through parliament its controversial data retention bill. Once enacted, the legislation will allow law enforcement and other agencies the power to track vast volumes of our personal online data.

Governments are already accessing large amounts of data without warrants, last year the Australian Communications and Media Authority revealed it had received 563,012 authorisations granted to government agencies for access to telecommunications metadata in the 2013-14 financial year. The data retention laws will place even more private information within the reach of these agencies.

Quietly released late on Friday afternoon - always a good time to put out a report you want buried because people are distracted by silly things like a dress - the joint intelligence and security committee report made 39 recommendations on the proposed data retention laws, but significantly deferred dealing with the issues around journalist’s sources by recommending further investigation. Which means the bill is set to pass with the serious question of how sources can be protected unresolved.

The most disturbing element of this is that the government will effectively be able to ferret out journalists' confidential sources. A journalist’s ability to offer confidentiality is a key component of an independent and robust media, in turn a key part of an open and free democratic society. Who will want to talk to journalists if they can then be targeted as a result?

The Government claims we need these laws to stop terrorism, but have so far failed to explain how this would work. A more cynical view is that this will give them the power to shut down dissent and criticism, one of the hall marks of a police state.

Imagine this: you work for a government department or agency. In the course of your work you come across corruption, dishonest conduct or something you believe the public should be told but which is being kept from them. You can’t raise your voice internally as you fear recriminations, even the loss of your career, so you turn to a journalist to get the story out in the hope it will change things for the better.

The journalist offers to protect you from reprisals by agreeing to keep your identity anonymous. The story breaks and then the recriminations begin in earnest. The journalistic code of ethics forbids us from revealing a source once the guarantee of confidentiality is given, meaning if hauled before a court and asked the identity of an informant; we must be prepared to go to jail to protect our source.

But with data retention the government can bypass this altogether and target the journalist's data in an attempt to find that person, which if they do, leaves you open to possible criminal prosecution, the loss of your job, and intense public scrutiny. See where I’m going with this?

Some of the biggest stories in recent years to expose corruption have involved journalists honouring commitments to keep sources' confidentiality, including the possibility of going to jail for refusing to divulge a source’s identify in court. The Reserve bank bribery scandal by reporters at The Age is a perfect example. It’s hard to see stories like this ever breaking if the identites of those involved were likely to be revealed through the journalists’ data.

Once this law is enacted it’s hard to see it being repealed, with both sides of politics in support after Labor indicated quietly on Friday morning that it would allow the laws through with only minor amendments.

The point here is simple; these changes mean less information that is in the public's interest to know will be revealed. At a time when the media is weak from shrinking advertising revenues and there are less journalists and more spin doctors than ever, we need brave individuals who are willing to expose wrongdoing.

This law sees to it that those people will be tracked down and punished for doing so. It’s only logical to conclude there will be even less of them once this starts happening.


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