The federal government will not require internet companies to store people’s web browsing history as part of its new counter-terrorism plans, despite the prime minister suggesting it would.
Tony Abbott created confusion around the suite of measures on Wednesday when he tried to explain what types of customer metadata telecommunications companies would be required to keep for two years.
While it’s expected the information about Australians’ calls, texts and emails will be included, Mr Abbott suggested web browser history could also be captured.
‘It’s not what you’re doing on the internet, it’s the sites you’re visiting,’ he told the Nine Network on Wednesday morning.
‘It’s not the content, it’s just where you’ve been, so to speak.’
But the prime minister’s office later clarified his statement, saying browser history was not metadata and government agencies would still need a warrant to access such information.
Defending the data-retention plans, Mr Abbott described metadata as not being the ‘content of the letter but what’s on the envelope’.
In relation to mobile phones, metadata includes information such as origin and destination phone numbers, the billing name and address of both parties, time and duration of the correspondence, and the telecommunications tower used.
It does not include the content of the correspondence.
Online metadata covers the user-specific internet identifier code, IP addresses visited and the time, duration and number of visits.
It does not include the content of web browsing.
Mr Abbott said telecommunications companies already kept such information, and the government was simply asking them to continue to do so.
‘I have no doubt the civil libertarian brigade will do their best to stop this but my responsibility as prime minister is to keep our country safe,’ he said.
‘All of the expert advice from every single counter-terrorist agency is that this information is absolutely essential if we are to maintain our vigilance against terrorist activity’.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Labor respected the fact that national security laws needed updating for the modern age.
‘But we also have concerns that when you store so much information about so many Australians that this needs to be done very carefully and in a considered way … so there is no risk that ordinary Australians are being treated as if they are criminals,’ he said.
Mr Shorten was also concerned that internet service providers might pass the cost of their data storage on to customers.
Attorney-General George Brandis said the electronic signature of websites could be recorded under the new laws, but clicks within a particular website would not.
‘When you visit a website, people browse from one thing to the next (within the same site),’ he told Sky News.
‘That browsing history won’t be retained and there won’t be any capacity to access that.’
However, the metadata being sought by agencies included the electronic addresses of visited websites, which computer accessed them, the time they were accessed and the durations, he said.