Telcos Under Fire for Charging AFP to Help Catch Online Predators

A man sits at a laptop computer in a dark room.

Police investigators are being charged up to $1,020 for access to information on a single child exploitation offender by Australia’s internet companies.

There were 2,615 instances recorded in 2016-17 where the AFP requested the identity of subscribers in relation to child exploitation and pornography offences, according to new information released by the Department of Home Affairs in a Senate disclosure.

Laws currently state that companies should not bear the costs of — or profit from — helping, but NXT Senator Rex Patrick said telcos should follow the broader obligation to support police investigations for free.

“Telecommunication companies that charge police for access to information that could help detect and investigate online child sexual exploitation crimes are going against this principle,” he said.

“This is particularly the case when the crimes under investigation are being facilitated through the very internet services they provide.”

The AFP estimated it spent approximately $27,000 in 2016-17 on child exploitation requests.

Telcos can also charge for providing information in relation to bribery, cybercrime, money laundering and other offences, either to the AFP or other federal and state investigative bodies.

A Telstra spokesman said the company receives tens of thousands of requests for information each year from law enforcement agencies.

“When complying with such lawful requests, we charge a fee to recover our costs, as required by the relevant legislation,” he said.

Between July 2016 and June 2017, Telstra responded to 74,867 requests for customer information relating to court orders, warrants to access stored communications, copyright blocking requests and life-threatening situations.

Community obligation

Aussie Broadband MD Philip Britt said his company — which receives far fewer enquiries than Telstra — does not charge because of a sense of obligation to the community.

“Aussie Broadband chooses not to charge the Australian Federal Police for responses to any queries for data,” he said.

“We consider this to be part of our general community contribution and a small way that we can help make our communities better.”

Optus, iiNet and TPG did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

“If the telecommunication companies are charging at substantially different rates, then they should at the very least provide a breakdown of those charges and justify, both commercially and morally, to the public why they shouldn’t support police efforts gratuitously,” Mr Patrick said.