StartupAus is calling for significant changes to the much-decried Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018, more commonly known as the AA Bill or encryption bill.
The startup advocacy group is leading an industry submission to the Federal Parliamentary Joint Commission, with backing from the likes of Aussie unicorns Atlassian and Canva, and VCs Blackbird Ventures and AirTree.
Speaking to StartupSmart, Alex Gruszka, chief operating officer at StartupAus, says he believes when parliament passed the bill in early-December, there was “a gap between their intentions and what the act actually allows”.
For example, under the bill as it stands, individuals can be issued with technical capability notices (TCNs), demanding they provide assistance to the authorities in monitoring communications. If employees are issued with a TCN and tell their employees, or anyone, about it, they could face up to five years’ in prison.
The passing of the bill followed a crackdown on the government’s R&D tax incentive scheme, and the Morrison government’s decision to scrap the innovation minister position in cabinet.
“It’s definitely a backward step,” Gruszka says, “and continues a political narrative that sees tech put further and further out in the cold”.
Attempting to repeal the bill altogether, however, is a lengthy process, and there are things that could be done in the relative short term to immediately address some of the most pressing concerns.
The StartupAus submission outlines four key recommendations for changes to the bill.
First, it suggests removing the capability for TCNs to be issued to individual employees.
It also advises reducing the breadth of organisations that would be classified as a designated communications provider. Currently, the definition includes any provider of electronic services with one or more end user, essentially meaning any technology designed to connect to the internet is affected.
Thirdly, StartupAus recommends increased oversight and a limit on the use of the bill, ensuring there are adequate checks and balances in place.
“The government must include an objective, merits-based review to ensure consistency regarding the exercise of powers under the Act,” the submission says.
Finally, the submission suggests a clearer definition of a ‘serious offence’ that would warrant use of the powers in the act.
The leaders of many of the signatories also provided significant help drafting the proposal, Gruszka says.
“It’s been a real catalysing incident,” he adds.
“The tech sector is starting to understand a political voice is necessary, and that they’re all on the same side.”
Immediately after the bill was passed, StartupAus polled members in the tech and startup space.
Of 224 respondents, a massive 91.5% said they are not in favour of the bill. More than a third (37.9%) said their company would be immediately affected, and 36.6% said they may be.
Further, when asked what they would do in the wake of the bill coming into effect, 57.8% said they may have to move overseas, and 49.5% said they may have to limit or remove Australian jobs.
According to Girl Geek Academy founder Sarah Moran, this has already come to pass. When the bill was first passed, she assumed it would take a while for the ramifications to kick in, she tells StartupSmart.
“But it’s absolutely something a lot of companies have had to act on already.”
Startups are either moving their main operations offshore, or reassessing their hiring practices, Moran says.
If any employee can be served a TCN, she says, “what chief executive in their right mind will see that not as a security risk?”
Equally, she notes a lot of companies aren’t able to talk about it and truly voice their concerns.
“The moment they say it’s an issue, they’re signalling to their customers that it’s a security risk,” she says.
“We hold the keys”
The AA Bill marks a continuing dip in support for startups from the government at a time when the sector seems to be on the cusp of a growth spurt. According to data from StartupAus’s Crossroads report, the sector has grown tenfold over the past five years.
“The sector is growing very strongly, and definitely part of that was the national innovation and science agenda,” Gruszka says.
Government agenda doesn’t dictate the success of the startup sector, he adds, but it does play a significant part.
“It really does matter what the prevailing narrative is in Canberra if we want to make Australia one of the best places in the world for startups,” he says.
Moran considers the tech industry to be “largely ignored” when it comes to legislature.
“We don’t have a powerful voice when it comes to politics,” she says. “But we know we hold the keys to the future economic prosperity.”
For Moran, teaching children about coding and technology careers is becoming “frustrating and heartbreaking”.
She’s teaching children they can have a prosperous career in tech, but “in Australia that might be hard to do”.
Politicians aren’t thinking far enough ahead, she says, putting their three-year terms “ahead of the future viability of Australia”.
“A visceral reaction”
Whether the StartupAus submission, or any of the other 30 submissions received so far, will make any material difference is “a hard question”, Gruszka says.
“Over the past few years nothing in politics, including the prime minister, is safe,” he adds.
“But both sides of parliament made it clear they would be opening this to amendment. We have to take their word on that.”
All the tech industry can do is be “loud and vocal in what we’re asking for and why,” Gruszka says, sending as strong a message as possible.
At the same time, “its election season”, Gruszka notes.
“Perhaps there’s a real chance to hold the political parties to account in the next couple of months.”
Moran, however, sees the upcoming election as a concern.
“I’m very scared that it’s going to be left as is,” she says.
“We’re coming into an election and no one wants to be seen as being soft on terror,” she adds.
“That’s a political short-term win for either party, at the expense of long-term investment in the technology infrastructure in Australia.”
However, Moran adds she has “just enough faith in the politicians” that they will honour their commitment to re-think the finer points of the bill.
“The optimist in me says the tech industry can come together and be a big enough bee in the politicians’ bonnet,” she says.
The StartupAus submission has drummed up support among the tech community, but in order for the industry to have a real effect, those outside of it have to be motivated, too.
Gruszka notes his whole job revolves around innovation and policy, but “I’m used to being the only nerd in the room”, he says.
And so the response to the bill from people outside of the direct space was surprising, but reassuring.
“Seeing such a visceral and widespread response made me feel pretty confident that there is concern here,” he says.