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 cyber-bullying,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.


Banning how-to-vote cards weakens democracy

The Queensland government is considering a ban on how to vote cards outside polling booths. This is madness – a clear and obvious threat to free expression in an electoral democracy. Australian elections are already incredibly highly regulated.

There are rules governing the timing of election advertisements and their format, rules governing spending, rules governing donations, and rules governing electoral material.

In my book I outlined the tenuous arguments made by electoral authorities in favour of these constraints. The Queensland government’s proposals are even less compelling. Democracy ought to be rowdy and enthusiastic. This is a sign of vibrancy not bad behaviour. Of course if it is demonstrated that some campaigners have been obstructing voters on their way to polling booths this is a matter for police rather than electoral control.

Still, this is at least practical compared to the Victorian Parliament’s investigation into whether it can regulate comment on elections on social media. As the Liberal MP Bernie Finn said “On social media it’s the wild, wild west. It’s anything goes.” Even if regulating free democratic speech online was desirable – and why would it be? – it would be utterly, utterly futile to try.

It is hard not to see the proposed changes in Queensland and Victoria as an undue threat to free expression in a healthy democracy. And not trivial ones either. Constraints on advertising and constraints on campaigning inevitably favour the incumbents.


Senate reform would lock out micro-parties


My Drum column this week criticises the calls from the major parties to reform the Australian electoral system to keep out minor party preference deals as undemocratic:

Think of a vote for a micro-party as a vote against the mainstream, rather than intellectual support of the full platform of, say, the HEMP Party or the Secular Party of Australia.

… All those micro-party votes pool together through the preference system and throw up a micro-party representative.

In past elections micro-party votes would just dissipate, because the micro-parties weren’t working together and there weren’t as many Australians voting against the big players.

Yes, Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party got a tiny number of direct votes. But it’s not about him. A Senate seat isn’t a personal reward. Muir represents all those in Victoria who voted “other”.

If we rewrote our electoral system to prevent micro-parties from preference aggregation we would, in a very real way, be disenfranchising those who rejected the majors.


In defence of the right to boycott

do-not-buy The parliamentary secretary for agriculture, Richard Colbeck, has floated once more the possibility of removing the exemption that environmental and consumer groups enjoy from the general ban on secondary boycotts.

On the ABC’s World Today I responded to this proposal. Boycotts, whether primary or secondary are a completely legitimate form of political expression. Any government that is pledged to support free speech should also support the right to boycott.

I also spelled out this argument in greater detail in the Drum in September last year.


Abbott government pressing ahead with social media censorship plan


Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher has announced that the government is planning to draft legislation for its ‘Children’s e-Safety Commissioner’, according to ZDNet Australia:

Fletcher said today that the government would now proceed with legislation on the eSafety commissioner.

“It is clear that all stakeholders share the same objective, that is, to protect children from online dangers such as cyberbullying,” he said.

“I welcome the input we have received in these many thoughtful submissions, which will be carefully considered as we proceed to develop legislation.”

This is a terrible policy, as Simon Breheny and I explained in our submission to the Department of Communications, and I wrote in the Sunday Age last weekend. The government’s proposals will do nothing to tackle the root causes of bullying, ignore solutions that already exist, and will vest the government with a vast new censorship power.

Of course we wait to see the legislation. But it’s astounding that at the exact time the government is looking at reforming the Racial Discrimination Act to protect freedom of speech, it would be also looking to clamp down on that very same freedom on social media networks.


Section 18C reforms are (almost) a full repeal

In my ABC Drum column today, I talk about what the Coalition government’s proposed reforms to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act mean for freedom of speech in Australia:

George Brandis’s exposure draft of amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act is a magnificent example of how to repeal legislation without admitting you’re repealing legislation.

It is, without doubt, a reform that advances the cause of freedom of speech in Australia.

The reforms neuter the provision (Section 18C) which Andrew Bolt was found to have breached in 2011 with his newspaper columns discussing white-skinned Aboriginal people.

I was also interviewed on ABCNews24 about why we need to protect freedom of speech as a fundamental human right:


ASIO: Fixing one massive privacy breach with a second massive privacy breach


The recently released submission by ASIO to the Senate Inquiry into the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 argues, unashamedly, that Edward Snowden’s exposure of a massive US government encroachment on privacy means that Australia needs to massively encroach privacy too:

These changes are becoming far more significant in the security environment following the leaks of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Since the Snowden leaks, public reporting suggests the level of encryption on the internet has increased substantially. In direct response to these leaks, the technology industry is driving the development of new internet standards with the goal of having all Web activity encrypted, which will make the challenges of traditional telecommunications interception for necessary national security purposes far more complex.

You can read ASIO’s submission here. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported last night, many of Australia’s law enforcement bodies have lined up to support a mandatory data retention scheme. Even regulators like ASIC want data retention.

In 2012 Simon Breheny and I argued that the Gillard government’s proposed mandatory data retention would risk a serious breach of our civil liberties.

But the Snowden angle is a new one, demonstrating the rhetorical leaps that agencies such as ASIO are willing to make to grab new powers.


First person charged under Queensland’s out of control party laws

The first person has been charged under Queensland’s out of control party legislation after a Townsville party devolved into a brawl:

The 17 year old man was charged after 17 police units (31 officers) were required to quell a disturbance at Gulliver on Saturday night.

Senior Sergeant Graeme Paterson says when police arrived at the Parsons Street address about 100 people were in the street.

“There was fighting occurring out on the street, there were bottles being thrown around, there was broken glass around the area, the initial police crew required the assistance of many other police crews,” he said.

One police officer had a full can of alcohol thrown at her, police charged other party goers with liquor, drug and wilful damage offences.

Of course, fighting, throwing things at police, drug use and property damage are already illegal. Even being drunk in public is a crime in Queensland.

What’s new about the out of control party legislation is that it places sanctions on the host of the party, blaming them for the criminal acts of their guests.

The party had been registered with the police, as it was required to be, and was only intended to have forty attendees. Despite this, the 17 year old is liable for a $12,100 fine or one year’s jail.

As I wrote in the Drum as these laws were being considered in November last year:

Defending his out-of-control parties bill, the Queensland Police Minister has argued that “the majority of people who do the right thing have nothing to fear”. Well, that’s not the way the bill is written. Not if the letter of the law is enforced. No free society should rest their liberties on the discretion of the agents of the state.


Legacy media regulations holding back legacy media

My ABC Drum column this week is on Australia’s outdated media ownership restrictions:

It is incredible to think the Australian government imposes largely the same regulations on media ownership that it did in the 1930s.

Waves of change in Australia’s economic system have come and gone in that time. Not to mention technologies.

Indeed, television was in its experimental infancy when the first broadcasting ownership limits were imposed.