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Privacy pushed into glaring spotlight
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Privacy pushed into glaring spotlight

A SPEECH by Justice Michael Kirby early last week has prompted calls from the Australian Democrats for wholesale reform of internet privacy laws. “The Rudd Government has the opportunity…

A SPEECH by Justice Michael Kirby early last week has prompted calls from the Australian Democrats for wholesale reform of internet privacy laws.

“The Rudd Government has the opportunity to start with a clean slate and develop a workable and safe regime to regulate and protect internet users, but the ALP’s track record on privacy is not good,” Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja said.

Since these comments were made, the Federal Government has instigated an overhaul of privacy law. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner is no longer part of the Attorney-General’s portfolio and will instead be personally overseen by Kevin Rudd as part of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The privacy commissioner, Karen Curtis, told Lawyers Weekly that her office would continue to work closely with the department responsible for privacy policy.

She pointed out that proposals for reform of Australian privacy laws are already under consideration by the Australian Law Reform Commission. Nevertheless, she welcomed Justice Kirby’s comments, particularly in light of his instrumental part in shaping Australian’s privacy laws in the 1980s. “Justice Kirby has made a valuable contribution in relation to Australian and international privacy regulation debate over the years, and as such his contributions and observations are always welcome,” she said.

The commissioner is encouraging legal professionals with an interest in Privacy Reform to engage with the ALRC on the issue of privacy reform, and to give their feedback on the views outlined in the ALRC’s Discussion Paper 72.

“This is a once in a generation opportunity to influence policy in this area from the practical experience of legal professionals,” Curtis said.

“My office believes that the Privacy Act has generally served the Australian public well and one of the key technology-related proposals in my office’s submission to the inquiry was that the Privacy Act should remain technology-neutral to allow for sufficient regulatory flexibility to accommodate technological change. However, my office has recommended to the ALRC that some changes to the Privacy Act may be necessary to reflect technological developments,” Curtis said. These changes include a “multi-faceted [approach] to the protection of privacy in the context of developing technologies”.

Social networking sites such as Facebook have highlighted the urgency of addressing the issues raised in the privacy review. The company’s 23-year-old founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was recently compelled to make a public statement reassuring users that their data would not be misused, after it was revealed that user data was being kept by the site’s advertising partners even after users “opted-out” of its Beacon advertising program.

In response to these developments, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner has announced its intention to publish FAQs about social networking sites. “Users of social networking websites readily post their photos and personal details without necessarily thinking of who else may gain access to their personal information,” Curtis said.

She plans to implement a program of user education, and encourages the widespread adoption of anti-spyware and international agreements between jurisdictions as steps to prevent technological developments from encroaching on people’s privacy.

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