The Australian Privacy Foundation (APF) and Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) have welcomed the government's announcement of a public consultation into introducing a statutory right to privacy.
Both organisations have long supported the 2008 recommendation by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) that such a law be adopted.
Earlier today the Minister for Privacy, Brendan O'Connor, announced the consultation in the wake of the high-profile News of the World voicemail scandal.
"I think they've been sitting there coiled and ready for action, and now they've finally seen their opportunity," APF chair Professor Roger Clarke told CSO Online. "I think the Minister's timing is impeccable," he said, as the government can begin the consultation with minimal media opposition.
The only opponents of a right to privacy for individuals being enshrined in law have been the major media companies and those who publish through them, Clarke said.
"In broad terms, EFA is strongly pro a statutory right to privacy," spokesperson Stephen Collins told CSO Online, but he warned against undue haste.
"More than anything, the entire process needs not to be knee-jerk, responding to things such as News of the World, which as we both know, are the actions of a set of criminals who regardless of any legislated right to privacy wouldn't have been likely to have stopped doing what they were doing," he said.
Both organisations stressed the need for balance.
"Any legislation that is an outcome of this review needs to balance the right to privacy against reasonable need to know, both for law enforcement purposes and, for example, when a family member of someone needs information on their health status that medical staff might otherwise be reluctant to reveal," Collins said.
The APF's stated position on a right to privacy calls for a law that is available to individuals, but not "legal persons" such as companies; enables a court to grant injunctions, award damages, and impose penalties; requires the court to balance privacy against issues such as "the public interest"; and that provides a clear framework and criteria for evaluating a public interest defence.
The ALRC recommended that the legal defences against a charge of invasion of privacy should include acting in lawful defence of a person or property; that the action was required or authorised by or under law; or that publication of the information was privileged under defamation law.
"The ALRC's proposals are balanced," Clarke said. "The APF never ever wants to have unbalanced privacy proposals put forward. The media are critical to privacy. Freedom of the press is something that privacy and other human right all involve."
The government has said that a public issues paper will be issued "soon", followed by period of public consultation.