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Your metadata and the cost of collecting it belong on your phone and internet bill

Carbon tax protest shows protests putting prices in punters' faces pay off

When Australia's federal government legislated a carbon tax, some electricity companies tweaked their bills so that customers could see it as a line item.

The motivation was purely political: companies that did so were owned by States of Australia whose governments were of a different political hue to the Federal government of the day. Adding the carbon tax to the bill was a political act calculated to make sure punters could see just how far into their pockets the feds were reaching.

The tactic certainly helped to make the tax a stinker and therefore contributed to the last Federal government's electoral demise.

It's now time to bring the tactic back, to make the cost and impact of of metadata retention plain for all to see. Last week's budget revealed that Australia's carriers of voice and/or data will be offered $131m to implement their mandatory metadata retention infrastructure. Most feel that's not going to cover their implementation costs.

A few weeks back, I asked the department of communications why telcos should be out of pocket on data retention when Australia's prime minister had outlined a doctrine whereby industries hit with new regulations should be relieved of others to balance things up. Where, I asked, is the reduction in costs or regulation for telcos? The department flick-passed the inquiry to the attorney-general's department, which never responded.

Faced with that intransigence, telcos would not be unreasonable if they decided to add a line item for metadata retention to their bills so that their punters can understand the costs they're being made to meet.

I hope carriers go further and also offer some hints about how metadata will be used. I'm happy for my mobile bill to say “Last month, your metadata reveals you made most of your calls from Postcode 1234”, accompanied by a statement to the effect that law enforcement agencies could make even wider inferences.

If that kind of information were in Australians' faces every time they open a bill, perhaps they might start to worry a bit more about the metadata retention regime in the same way they worried about a carbon tax.

Australia's digital rights activists aren't organised enough to communicate the issue. So if the telcos are really mad about their new role, they'll have to do the job themselves. Carbon tax protests mean the template for action is there, now they just have to be brave enough to use it. ®

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