First steps to reform Aus­tralian pri­va­cy laws

Recent­ly, on 24 June 2010, the Fed­er­al Cab­i­net Sec­re­tary, Sen­a­tor the Hon­ourable Joe Lud­wig, released expo­sure draft leg­is­la­tion that Gov­ern­ment pro­pos­es in order to imple­ment its first stage response to reform pri­va­cy law in Aus­tralia. This is the first for­mal step by the Gov­ern­ment to imple­ment the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Aus­tralian Law Reform Com­mis­sion (ALRC) that the Gov­ern­ment has accept­ed to update our laws that pro­tect per­son­al (or pri­vate) information.

As read­ers will be aware, on 31 Jan­u­ary 2006, the Com­mon­wealth Attor­ney-Gen­er­al asked the ALRC to review Aus­tralian pri­va­cy laws and to make rec­om­men­da­tions about ways in which those laws (that have applied to the pri­vate sec­tor at the Fed­er­al lev­el since 2001) could be improved. Accord­ing to the terms of ref­er­ence, there were sig­nif­i­cant con­cerns that the advent of new tech­nolo­gies (includ­ing data match­ing, facial recog­ni­tion tech­nolo­gies and improve­ments in genet­ic map­ping), and how infor­ma­tion is gath­ered, stored and com­mu­ni­cat­ed, togeth­er with changes in com­mu­ni­ty views and the com­plex inter­ac­tion with oth­er pri­va­cy laws intro­duced by State and Ter­ri­to­ry gov­ern­ments, have meant that the cur­rent pri­va­cy laws may not respond appro­pri­ate­ly to the cur­rent (and future) envi­ron­ment. The ALRC under­took a detailed analy­sis of the laws, and exten­sive pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion. In response, the ALRC made a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of rec­om­men­da­tions, focus­ing on each of the following:

  • the tech­nol­o­gy neu­tral­i­ty of the law;
  • a har­monised set of Pri­va­cy Principles;
  • a redraft­ing of the Pri­va­cy Act to make it more accessible;
  • a new com­pre­hen­sive cred­it report­ing framework;
  • improve­ments in health sec­tor infor­ma­tion flows;
  • enhanced pow­ers for the Pri­va­cy Commissioner;
  • codes to oper­ate in con­junc­tion with, and not instead of, uni­fied pri­va­cy principles;
  • an audit pow­er to be grant­ed to Pri­va­cy Commissioner;
  • admin­is­tra­tive review of deter­mi­na­tions by Commissioner;
  • greater penal­ty and enforce­ment provisions;
  • a spe­cif­ic prin­ci­ple for direct mar­ket­ing activ­i­ties (but a rejec­tion of any age based dis­tinc­tions for direct mar­ket­ing obligations);
  • require­ment to take rea­son­able steps to ensure that data is relevant;
  • changes to what hap­pens if access or cor­rec­tion is refused.

The Gov­ern­ment has accept­ed some of those rec­om­men­da­tions. Some of the rec­om­men­da­tions have been reject­ed and some of those rec­om­men­da­tions are still under con­sid­er­a­tion by the Gov­ern­ment. The expo­sure draft bill and accom­pa­ny­ing guide released by the Gov­ern­ment is the Government’s pro­posed leg­isla­tive response to the rec­om­men­da­tions that it has accepted.

A key rec­om­men­da­tion of the ALRC, accept­ed by the Gov­ern­ment, is to uni­fy the cur­rent Infor­ma­tion Pri­va­cy Prin­ci­ples and the Nation­al Pri­va­cy Prin­ci­ples. The draft bill, if passed, will replace each of these prin­ci­ples with 13 Aus­tralian Pri­va­cy Prin­ci­ples” (APPs). This will be instead of the sep­a­rate 11 IPPs and 10 NPPs that cur­rent­ly exist. The APPs will apply to all agen­cies” and organ­i­sa­tions”. State and Ter­ri­to­ry author­i­ties and pre­scribed instru­men­tal­i­ties, togeth­er with indi­vid­u­als, small busi­ness oper­a­tors and reg­is­tered polit­i­cal par­ties will still be exempt from these new prin­ci­ples (sub­ject to the Government’s response to the ALRC rec­om­men­da­tions in rela­tion to some of these exemp­tions in the sec­ond stage of the process). How­ev­er, if the cur­rent Bill is passed, it will mean that Com­mon­wealth gov­ern­ment depart­ments and agen­cies and all pri­vate busi­ness­es (oth­er than small busi­ness oper­a­tors) will have to com­ply with the same 13 principles.

The Gov­ern­ment has indi­cat­ed that it intends that the draft­ing of the new Act will be done in parts, with each part to be referred to a Sen­ate com­mit­tee for con­sid­er­a­tion and pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion as the draft­ing of each is com­plet­ed. In accor­dance with this com­mit­ment, Sen­a­tor Lud­wig has also tabled these pro­posed prin­ci­ples in the Sen­ate for refer­ral to a Sen­ate com­mit­tee which will con­duct pub­lic hear­ings on the pro­posed reforms.

The Gov­ern­ment intends that at least three fur­ther parts will be released, in order to imple­ment the rec­om­men­da­tions of the ALRC that have been accept­ed by the Gov­ern­ment. At this stage, fol­low­ing the cur­rent expo­sure draft, the fol­low­ing 3 fur­ther parts will be released for pub­lic consultation:

  • pro­vi­sions intro­duc­ing more com­pre­hen­sive cred­it report­ing, along­side pri­va­cy pro­tec­tions and respon­si­ble lend­ing practices;
  • pro­vi­sions relat­ing to the pro­tec­tion of health infor­ma­tion, in par­tic­u­lar improv­ing health sec­tor infor­ma­tion flows, and giv­ing indi­vid­u­als new rights to have their health record trans­ferred between providers; and 
  • pro­vi­sions strength­en­ing the Pri­va­cy Commissioner’s pow­ers to con­duct inves­ti­ga­tions, resolve com­plaints and pro­mote com­pli­ance with the Pri­va­cy Act, to be inte­grat­ed into the new­ly-cre­at­ed Office of the Aus­tralian Infor­ma­tion Commissioner.
Sec­ond stage Gov­ern­ment response

Stage two of the Government’s response will con­sid­er the remain­ing 98 rec­om­men­da­tions in the ALRC report that the Gov­ern­ment has not yet accept­ed or reject­ed. This stage will deal with a num­ber of sig­nif­i­cant and con­tentious issues, including:

  • clar­i­fi­ca­tion or removal of exemp­tions (includ­ing the cur­rent employ­ee exemption)
  • a scheme for com­pul­so­ry data breach notification
  • a statu­to­ry cause of action for seri­ous inva­sions of privacy
  • pri­va­cy and deci­sion mak­ing issues for chil­dren and autho­rised representatives
  • han­dling of per­son­al infor­ma­tion under the Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Act 1997

The Gov­ern­ment will con­sid­er and respond to these rec­om­men­da­tions once the first stage reforms have been pro­gressed. At this stage, there is no indi­ca­tion of the tim­ing of this. Any fur­ther changes that the Gov­ern­ment pro­pos­es will be sub­ject to a sim­i­lar process of Sen­ate com­mit­tee review and fur­ther pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion, sim­i­lar to the process adopt­ed by the Gov­ern­ment in rela­tion to the cur­rent expo­sure draft Bill.

There has been no change in the atti­tude or approach of the Gillard Government.

Atti­tude of the Opposition

The atti­tude of the Oppo­si­tion to the pro­pos­als, or many of the ALRC rec­om­men­da­tions, is not clear. In August 2008, Sen­a­tor Bran­dis (the Oppo­si­tion shad­ow Attor­ney-Gen­er­al) indi­cat­ed that the:

Oppo­si­tion will exam­ine the Report of the Aus­tralian Law Reform Com­mis­sion, and any leg­isla­tive response from the Gov­ern­ment, with care.

Sen­a­tor Bran­dis went on to say, in the con­text of a cau­tion that any move to cre­ate a statu­to­ry cause of action for pri­va­cy, that:

Nev­er­the­less, it is most unlike­ly that the Oppo­si­tion would sup­port the ero­sion of exist­ing guar­an­tees of free­dom of speech.

I have not been able to find any more recent state­ments by Sen­a­tor Bran­dis or the Coali­tion on these issues, or the Government’s pro­pos­als. The Coali­tion is yet to release any pol­i­cy on the ALRC rec­om­men­da­tions or the pro­posed reforms.

Now that a Fed­er­al elec­tion has been called (includ­ing a half-Sen­ate elec­tion) it will be inter­est­ing to see the pol­i­cy of the Oppo­si­tion in rela­tion to the amend­ments, and the rec­om­men­da­tions of the ALRC, and the like­ly out­come of the pro­posed reforms, fol­low­ing the 21 August election.

For fur­ther infor­ma­tion, please con­tact Swaab Attorneys.