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Privacy and the Internet

By Daryl Williams - posted Thursday, 15 June 2000

Australians have embraced the information technology revolution and the opportunities the increasingly borderless commercial world has to offer. One in four Australian households already has access to the Internet and it is forecast that, by 2005, more than 60 percent of households will be Internet users.

Information technology has the potential to enrich the lives, work and well being of all Australians, but the fast pace of the ever-changing technological landscape means information and communications laws need to be at the leading edge of developments. It is clear many Australians have concerns about electronic commerce, including issues such as legal certainty, security, authentication and privacy. Such concerns have made many people reluctant to embrace electronic commerce and its benefits.

Although Australians have taken up the Internet at a high rate, it is estimated that fewer than five percent of Australians use the Internet to buy and sell goods.


One of the major reasons for this reluctance is a general concern about how personal information is obtained, stored, used and transferred over the world wide web.

People want to know who has their name, their address, their telephone number, their credit card details and any other information they impart as they trawl through the web. They also want to know how that information will be used.

Many websites collect information about the people who surf though them. Not only do sites log how many hits they have, but also who is hitting them. And the use of cookies - a unique number stored by your browser in your computer - has given website operators unprecedented access to Internet users’ habits and allowed them to target their advertising.

The Privacy Amendment (Private Sector) Bill 2000, introduced to Parliament in April, addresses privacy issues thrown up by new technology. This Bill is the most significant development in the area of privacy law since the passing of the Privacy Act in 1988. Previously, there has been no comprehensive privacy protection applying to the private sector.

The Bill will establish a new approach to the protection and handling of personal information in the private sector and will also implement the Privacy Commissioner’s National Principles for the Fair Handling of Personal Information.

The Bill has been drafted in such a way that it can be applied in both the conventional and electronic environments. It will mean website operators collecting personal information online will have to take reasonable steps to ensure that Internet users know who is collecting their information and how it is used, stored and disclosed. The legislation also allows people to access their records and correct those records if they are wrong.


Private organisations will also have to protect that information from unauthorised access and disclosure. Website operators who handle personal information will have to address issues of data security, such as encryption.

The Bill will also apply to direct marketing by electronic mail. The legislation allows the use of personal information for direct marketing purposes, provided people are given the opportunity to opt out of receiving any further direct marketing.

This provision aims to regulate spamming - the unwanted bombardment of junk mail - by Australian private sector organisations. The Bill provides minimum benchmarks, but private sector organisations can adopt higher standards, such as the opt-in approach.

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About the Author

Hon Daryl Wiliams AM QC MP is the Member for Tangney Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. He was Commonwealth Attorney-General from 1996-2003.

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