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September 14, 2011  |  Second Reading

Electronic Transactions (Victoria) Amendment Bill 2011

I would much rather be speaking this evening on the closure of the Heidelberg West police station. Be that as it may, however, I will speak on the Electronic Transactions (Victoria) Amendment Bill 2011. I would like to start with some matters raised by the Minister for State and Regional Development back on 6 April 2000. At that time that minister said Victoria was the first state in Australia to introduce legislation to legalise online transactions. That minister was the former Premier, John Brumby. He talked about this being a milestone for Australia’s growing e-commerce industry. This relates to the history of these matters, which has involved ensuring that electronic transactions and paper transactions are put on an equal footing from a legal perspective. It is important to note that wherever a document is required to be produced in paper form this legislation will make an electronic form just as legal. That is what we talked about some 10 years ago.

It has also been noted that Victoria was the first state in Australia to legalise electronic signatures. This is important because the internet has changed the way that businesses and the community conduct transactions. Until then there had been no recognition of those matters in law; that was the situation some time ago. Things have changed quite significantly, but these are the sorts of matters that in a legislative framework we were grappling with a decade ago. I note that it has been important for governments to make sure that they are committing to making it easier for companies and customers to use e-commerce. That has been about providing leadership to other states in terms of how they could develop a framework — ultimately moving towards a national framework — in relation to these matters.

The object of the legislation at the time was to allay community concerns about whether electronic contracts and transactions would be legally recognised. There were significant concerns; they had an effect on investment and the growth of e-commerce, which was always going to be a precursor to how business investment would occur in the future. For e-commerce to thrive and to have the confidence of the business community, there need to be robust laws and rights that apply in the same way to e-commerce as they do to written contracts, whether written with a quill, a pen or a pencil, going back hundreds of years.

That is the development we have seen happen over the last decade, making sure that electronic transactions form part of what has now become a national scheme recognising e-commerce.

I note that previously the commonwealth Electronic Transactions Act 1999 provided for the validation of contracts signed electronically. That predated the work done in April 2000 to promote what would become the Electronic Transactions (Victoria) Act 2000 passed by the Parliament of Victoria. That act was not about compelling people to use electronic means in place of traditional measures; it was to enable agreement between parties taking part in electronic transactions. It allowed people to make electronic transactions with greater certainty and confidence.

I would like to touch on a range of matters that relate to electronic commerce and security issues.

In particular there are issues around the internet as an information superhighway, electronic commerce, the information economy, converging insecurity and matters of electronic encryption. Some might refer not just to the information superhighway but to superhighway robbery, which can occur if people are not clear about their rights or do not have a legislative or legal framework to protect their rights when they invest in relevant areas.

As was pointed out in a research paper some 12 years ago, there has been a battle for e-commerce control. An ‘Electronic commerce: security issues’ study was done by Matthew James from the Australian parliamentary library’s science, technology, environment and resources group. He talked about credit cards versus online banks, the industry code of practice, privacy on the net, privacy policies and cyberspace crime. Then there are matters of cryptography and authentication policies, including cryptography law and the public key authentication framework.

These are just some of the areas and issues that have needed to be addressed in relation to the type of legislation we are looking at this evening.

If we go back some 12 or 14 years, we can see that in 1997, for example, Australia had 1.5 billion electronic transactions, which represents a significant and growing commercial sector. Members can imagine how those numbers would have increased over the past decade. Whether it was the 1.5 billion electronic transactions some 14 years ago or an increased number now, the issues remain the same for the public. The public remains concerned about privacy, security and inequitable access costs. Perhaps it is not without reason that these are concerns of the public. Certainly one would not be surprised to find that if people wanted to go to the Heidelberg West police station to raise these concerns, they would see a ‘closed’ sign and would not be able to discuss those matters.

They would be told nothing because the station would be closed, and they would have to go elsewhere for legal advice on electronic transaction matters.

It is noted in the research paper from 10 years ago — and I think this is still relevant today — that:

Any e-commerce on the internet becomes potentially subject to intersection, tracking or attack and thus warrants the use of cryptography to code transmissions for security and privacy. The encrypted data becomes reasonably secure assuming safe handling at each end. Whether or not government or organisations should have access to encrypted transmissions is a current argument. There is a need for digital certificates to establish the authenticity of online users and also a public key authentication framework for security.

These are the sorts of matters that people have been grappling with for quite some time. I note that the terms ‘information highway’ and ‘global information infrastructure’ refer to the trend to convert communications networks, media and computing systems into one system. What has not changed are people’s concerns and the need — if we are going to encourage and promote confidence and investment in new technologies, cut red tape and have more efficient business practices — for those in the business community in particular to feel that in the great investments they make in their companies and processes they will have the support of and can cloak themselves in the rights of the law in this state to ensure that their electronic transactions are secure. Where there are disputes on such matters they need to feel that there are remedies in place and the opportunity for them to pursue those matters. That is critical to this bill this evening.

It is not so much about the tin tacks. We are picking up on national legislation — legislation that has already been passed by the commonwealth, New South Wales, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. The legislation has already been introduced in the South Australian and Western Australian parliaments, and it is pending in Queensland and the Austrian Capital Territory. What is important to both local businesses and large businesses is the ability to access and use e-commerce in a way that allows them to have confidence that when there are disputes on these matters they will be able to seek redress. These are the matters being addressed in this Electronic Transactions (Victoria) Amendment Bill 2011 that is before the Parliament.

A good example is the safeguard against input errors.

An example of that is when a customer decides to buy a couple of cars through a car yard or an online service and accidentally buys 50 cars, they can then contact the vendor and adjust the contract. These are the matters that we would like further details on from the government. These matters are important to consumers, who are clearly the ones likely to provide the investment for local Victorian businesses seeking to have more investment in e-commerce by community members. It is just as important for businesses that seek to promote the use of e-commerce to know that there is legal redress when these matters are in dispute as it is for members of the community who seek to use e-commerce as a more efficient way in which to do business.

The Labor Party does not oppose this bill. It is noted that under the previous Labor government Victoria was the first state to introduce legislation on these matters. However, I remind members of the house not to come to the Heidelberg West police station if they want support on these matters, because it is closed.