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Anti-piracy measures a threat to rule of law and free speech

My ABC Drum column this week is on the Abbott government’s floated proposals to deal with online copyright infringement (‘piracy’), and why they breach fundamental rule of law principles and freedom of speech:

One of the quickest ways for a company to cut costs is outsourcing. Even better when you can have the Government do your outsourcing for you.

This is the basic political logic behind the upcoming crackdown on online copyright infringement.

For the last year George Brandis has been hinting at a legislative crackdown on copyright infringement …

Here’s what we know. There are two proposals being considered, “graduated response” and a website blocking scheme.

Read it all here.

Voter ID: a non-solution to a non-problem

My ABC Drum column this week is on the misguided proposal to require voters present identity documents at polling booths:

After the loss of 1400 ballots in Western Australia, the reputation of the AEC – and, by implication, the integrity of the electoral system itself – is understandably shaky. There is a strong political desire to do something about the AEC. Something. Anything.

Hence the political push for voter ID laws, which are supposed to prevent multiple voting. Last month, Queensland introduced its own voter identification laws as part of its electoral reform package.

But voter ID is a non-solution to a non-problem.

Read the whole thing here.

Queensland backs down on anti-speech union ‘transparency’ laws


Good news out of Queensland this morning. The Newman government has quietly shelved its union ‘transparency’ speech restrictions. The restrictions required unions to run ballots of its members for permission to start political campaigns.

As Simon Breheny explained on FreedomWatch when these were first proposed last year,

The changes will have an unacceptable impact on freedom of speech – the bill makes it much more difficult for an organisation to participate in political debate. This is campaign finance reform by stealth. Including the changes in a package ostensibly designed to reform industrial relations is a devious political move.

In other words, the laws constrained the ability of non-government actors to participate in public debate by placing extra administrative requirements upon them.

If unions are acting in ways their members do not support, then those members should leave their unions. Unions should live and die on their reputation and the services they provide.

But, liberal principles about free association and a healthy third sector aside, the backdown can be almost entirely explained by the Unions NSW case last year. In December the High Court ruled that the NSW government’s campaign finance laws breached the Australian constitution’s implied freedom of political communication. I explained in The Drum why that ruling was so significant when it was released.

This Queensland government decision confirms that significance. Obviously they have advice the restrictions wouldn’t hold up under legal challenge, thanks to the Unions NSW precedent.

Here’s hoping the right to political communication has finally been ‘activated’ – that it is on its way to becoming a general right to free speech.

Anti-swearing laws and speech

A good piece in the Guardian on the problems with anti-swearing laws across Australia:

Laws across Australia criminalise the use of offensive, obscene, indecent or abusive language in, or within hearing distance of, a public place …

From 31 March this year, NSW police have been able to issue $500 on the spot fines for offensive language in public. On the spot fines can also be issued in Victoria and Queensland, and in those states, people caught using obscene or abusive words can receive a sentence of up to six months’ imprisonment.

Offensive language charges are much more common than you’d think. They’re often brought as part of the “trifecta” – offensive language, resist arrest, and assault police. Last year, NSW police recorded more than 4,000 offensive language incidents.

In the Sunday Age in 2012 I wrote a piece exploring the evolving social context of language and the visibility of swearing in culture.

The Australian Border Force and civil liberties


In the Drum yesterday I warned that the new Australian Border Force, which comprises of Customs and the Immigration Department’s border operations – announced in this budget may prove to be one of the most dangerous long term consequences of this budget:

Bumping Immigration and Customs up the bureaucratic hierarchy will give those two organisations new influence, ambition, and ultimately power.

And by recasting them as part of our national security infrastructure, those agencies will orientate their core business towards that new, sexier, and more threatening security role.

Why easy to predict? Because that’s exactly what happened when the United States created the Department of Homeland Security. That monstrosity is expensive, expanding, and working to gain new powers. Until recently, its Immigration and Customs Enforcement division was lobbying for the power to track citizens’ movements through licence plate scanning.

The last thing Australia needs is yet another grand and ambitious security bureaucracy pushing for powers that reduce our civil liberties.

Millions for the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner – but to do what?

budget2014The 2014-15 budget includes $2.4 million over four years to fund the government’s proposed Children’s e-Safety Commissioner. See the expense measures in the Communications portfolio here.

As we explained in our submission to the inquiry into this policy, the proposal won’t do anything to stop the harm from bullying, is a clear threat to free speech, and may have some serious counterproductive consequences.

However, it’s not clear what the budget is suggesting here:

The independent Commissioner will provide a national leadership role for online safety issues for industry, families and groups responsible for the wellbeing of children. This measure delivers on the Government’s election commitment.

Well, not quite. The government’s proposal has always involved giving that commissioner some sort of power to force the removal harmful social media content from the internet.

There are problems with the very idea of a national cyberbullying commissioner – see our submission for details – but the most pressing and significant issue is whether that commissioner has the power to censor the internet. The budget papers casually skip over this key issue.

Hopefully that ambiguity reflects some doubt within the government that this anti-free speech policy will be pursued. We await the legislation.

Government not backing down on cyberbullying threat to free speech

Paul Fletcher, the parliamentary secretary for communications, confirmed today that the government is pushing ahead with its proposal to tackle cyber bullying through censorship. You can read his speech here.

First the good news: there will not be a new criminal cyber bullying offence. But this mostly confirms what we had expected.

The bad news is that the government is drafting legislation to form the new children’s e-safety commissioner with powers to take down abusive content from major social media websites:

Over coming months we will be finalising the administrative arrangements for this important office, including drafting legislation to establish the Office of the Children’s E-Safety Commissioner and confer powers upon the Commissioner; transferring in resources from other areas of the public service; and of course appointing a suitably qualified person to this important new public office.

In our submission to the government discussion paper on cyberbullying,we argued the commissioner’s takedown powers are an obvious threat to freedom of speech.

In his address today Fletcher tried to rebut this argument by claiming that it was no such threat because the speech it would censor would only involve children. But children have as much right to free speech as adults do. In our submission we pointed out that freedom of speech is particularly beneficial for young people as they engage in the digital world.

And unsurprisingly Fletcher is unable to explain why these new policies are needed given the already massive legal remedies currently on the books for bullying.

The more information about the government’s deeply misguided and dangerous policy read our submission here, or my column summarising our research in the Sunday Age here.