Cold reception for government's telco infrastructure security scheme

The government's proposed 'Telecommunications Sector Security Reforms' (TSSR) regime appears to have won it few friends in the telco sector.

The Attorney-General's Department has published on its website the submissions to the government's public consultation on an exposure draft of the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2015.

If passed the bill would boost the government's power to intervene in the telco industry by demanding information and issuing directions to telcos, including potentially overriding their choice of equipment vendor or decisions about network design.

The intention of the legislation is to ensure the robustness of Australia's telco infrastructure, the government has argued.

The government wants to pass the TSSR legislation before the end of the year.

A submission on the bill by the Australian Industry Group (AiG), the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA), and Communications Alliance was made public late last month.

The joint submission by industry groups slammed the government's proposals and their criticisms were echoed by Internet Australia.

The submissions by individual telcos express a range concerns, including avenues to effectively appeal directions issued to telcos, a lack of clarity on the decision-making process for issuing directions, details of which are set out in the explanatory memorandum not the text of the draft bill, and the impact the proposed legislation on the industry.

The power to issue directions "has the potential to impose a severe burden on the telecommunications industry and to affect competition and stifle innovation without C/CSPs [carriers/carriage service providers] having any avenue of meaningful appeal or review," iiNet argued in its submission (PDF).

There is a disconnect between the direction power in the explanatory memorandum and the direction power in the draft bill itself, argued iiNet — a criticism echoed by Optus.

"[T]here is a clear disconnect between how the EM intends the power be exercised and the legal reality of how it could be exercised," iiNet argued.

The obligation in the bill for telcos to protect their networks is meaningless, the ISP added.

"Enshrining in legislation something that any rational C/CSP will do off its own bat appears to iiNet to be unnecessary and inconsistent with the current Government's pledge to avoid unnecessary regulation," the submission states.

TPG's submission (PDF) said that the power to allow the Attorney-General or the Attorney-General's secretary "to direct Telcos to supply, cease supply or do or refrain from doing specified acts for national security reasons" is "dangerously broad".

The TSSR scheme should be abandoned, TPG said.

Optus said that although it does not object to the overall intent of the TSSR, it was concerned about aspects of the draft bill.

"Whilst Optus supports the Government’s intent in attempting to protect Australian telecommunications networks from interference, it believes the current Exposure Draft does not provide the necessary rigour for such a new security assessment framework to operate practically," its submission concluded.

"Further work is needed to establish clear decision-making criteria before a Direction can be issued to providers, and an appeals mechanism for these Directions must be made available."

Telstra called for the power to issue directions and gather information to be clearly defined in the bill.

"There is the risk that the Bill in its current form, with the broad-ranging powers it confers to the [Attorney-General's] Secretary to issue directions and gather information from C/CSPs and its potential impact on C/CSP procurement, investment and technological innovation plans, could have negative consequences in practice for our industry , and consequently Australian consumers and businesses that rely on communications services," Telstra argued (PDF).

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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