Australian bill criminalises unauthorised research collaborations

As country proposes tough new sanctions for sharing regulated technologies, except with the UK and US, sceptic asks whether nuclear submarine pact is worth the trouble

November 15, 2023
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Australian researchers face potential jail time if they share details about sensitive technology with foreigners other than Britons or Americans, under a proposed amendment to the Defence Trade Controls Act.

An exposure draft of the bill outlines criminal offences for the supply of regulated technologies to foreigners without permits. Australians also face criminal sanctions for providing services related to the technologies – including help in designing, producing, testing, repairing, modifying, operating, demilitarising or destroying them – without permits.

The draft bill, which has been released for public comment, also overrides the need for permits to share regulated technologies or services with the UK or US. “It is essential that Australia has a robust protective security environment,” an explanatory document says.

“It is also critical that Australia works with like-minded partners, especially with the United Kingdom and the United States, to enhance defence trade, deepen military interoperability and enhance defence capabilities.”

Commentators have until 17 November to provide feedback on the legislation. It is part of a move to harmonise Australia’s export control regime with those of the UK and US, the co-signatories of the Aukus agreement to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarine technology.

“We’re looking at a paradigm shift from excellent science being about working with the best in the world, to excellent science being working with the best in the world who share our values so that it can’t be used against us,” chief defence scientist Tanya Monro told a Canberra symposium hosted by the Australian Academy of Science.

Academy president Chennupati Jagadish, whose specialist areas of nanotechnology and semiconductors are among the regulated technologies, said his team was entirely comprised of researchers and technicians from foreign countries other than the US and UK. “We will need permits for all that we do,” he told the symposium.

“Members of my group will need to operate in a closed environment to not unintentionally share knowledge that may have a dual use. Discussion at international conferences, where unpublished knowledge is shared freely to solve research problems and enable collaboration, seems unlikely if this bill becomes law.

“Some of this may still be technically legal under this new legislation, but how will I know which session of these conferences I will be able to present at, ask questions or engage in discussions with or without a permit?”

Nathan Smyth, deputy secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, promised “robust consultation” on the draft legislation. “We’re…looking to strengthen the integrity of research to give justified confidence to all stakeholders on our path to Aukus,” he told the symposium.

“We’ll continue to review the operation of our laws and take further steps as necessary to make Australia the most resilient country in the world to foreign interference. There are implications no doubt for collaboration, but arrangements [will] be implemented in a proportionate way.”

Alan Gamlen, an Australian National University professor, asked whether Aukus was “worth the cost” if it meant closing down collaboration with countries like New Zealand “in order to get new submarines”.

Professor Monro cautioned against an “undue focus on the Aukus elements” of the proposed changes. “We have a very clear sense of which countries we need to lean into, and New Zealand is right up there,” she told the symposium. “Don’t interpret the trilateral element in this reform as discouraging that.”

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