Media release

Gillard government’s new censorship regime worse than internet filter

The Gillard government’s new online censorship policy may result in Australians having even more restrictions on their internet use than under the government’s original internet filter policy, according to Simon Breheny, Director of the Legal Rights Project at free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy last night claimed that the government had abandoned its proposal for a mandatory internet filter.

“The Gillard government is handing over control for the list of banned websites to the international police agency, Interpol, and is using an existing law in a way that was never intended,” said Mr Breheny.

Senator Conroy plans to use section 313 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 to force Australian internet service providers to block websites that appear on Interpol’s “worst of” list. The list is compiled with the assistance of 190 member countries.

“The use of an obscure provision of the legislation raises serious legal issues – it is highly doubtful whether the law can be used to compel ISPs to block websites at the Minister’s behest. If the Minister always had the power to impose an internet filter without the need for new legislation section 313 would have been used from the beginning,” said Mr Breheny.

“Using the Interpol list means foreign countries, including Iran, Cuba and Zimbabwe, will now dictate what Australians can and cannot access online.”

“Many of these countries have tyrannical governments that do not share our liberal democratic values. There is no guarantee that the list will not eventually include websites with political content.”

“The government’s new internet filter has been cobbled together by a Minister obsessed with controlling what Australians do online. It should be abandoned as being an even greater threat to online freedom than the original mandatory internet filter,” said Mr Breheny.

For media and comment: Simon Breheny, Director, Legal Rights Project, 0400 967 382


ASIC push for surveillance powers goes too far



“The Australian Securities and Investments Commission’s push to access the personal data of all Australian web users shows exactly why the government’s proposed mandatory data retention regime should not go ahead,” said Simon Breheny, Director of the Rule of Law Project at free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

In evidence given to the National Security Inquiry in Sydney today, ASIC stated that the content of online communications was needed to investigate insider trading and Ponzi schemes.

“The IPA predicted that power-hungry regulators would make a concerted effort to get hold of any information retained under a data retention regime. The fact that ASIC has demanded this and more before the laws have even passed is a stark warning to all Australians.

“The Australian people have been told we need new mandatory data retention laws to fight terrorism. ASIC’s push to access this data, and to make it even more comprehensive, completely undermines all assurances we’ve heard from the federal government.” said Mr Breheny.

ASIC is just the latest in a fast growing list of government agencies that have demanded the use of communications data. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and Australian Customs and Border Protection Service made similar claims earlier this month.

“The IPA remains unconvinced that police need these new laws. The case has not been made and studies have shown data retention to be completely ineffective in fighting crime. But the idea that any agency of government could access this data is even more frightening. The only way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to stop these laws being passed in the first place,” said Mr Breheny.


Roxon’s data retention scheme worse than Australia card

“Attorney-General Nicola Roxon’s proposal to force internet service providers to log details of every Australian’s internet usage is one of the most significant threats to individual liberty in Australian history,” said Simon Breheny, director of the Rule of Law Project at the free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

Mr Breheny and Chris Berg, IPA Director of Policy, appeared before the Parliamentary Inquiry into National Security Reforms in Melbourne today.

“The proposal would be a rolling, systematic and excessive invasion of the privacy of all Australians, just in case they are in the future ever suspected of committing a crime. This would be a complete reversal of the presumption of innocence, a key element of the rule of law,” said Mr Breheny.

The IPA told the Inquiry that the privacy implications of the current proposals are strikingly similar to the national identity card proposal of the mid-1980s.

“The IPA was one of the most prominent opponents of the Australia card then, and we are proud to be a prominent opponent of Nicola Roxon’s data retention proposal now,” said Mr Breheny.

In 1986 the IPA wrote that “Australians should not allow themselves to be bullied into accepting a proposal which has ominous implications and particularly a grave temptation for abuse by government.”

Today, the IPA issued the same warning in response to the proposed data retention regime.


IPA says ‘no secret deals’ on free speech


Media executives and the federal government have no right to secretly negotiate and agree to curbs on free speech, according to the free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

“Freedom of speech is a right that belongs to all Australians. It is not something that should be negotiated away in a secret political compromise between the Prime Minister and a handful of media bosses,” says Chris Berg, director of policy at the IPA and the author of a recent book on freedom of speech, In Defence of Freedom of Speech: From Ancient Greece to Andrew Bolt.

“The Prime Minister should not have sent a private letter to media companies offering to negotiate more regulation of the media. It should have been immediately released to the Australian public because it is their rights the government is proposing to curtail.

“Freedom of speech is not just an individual’s right to express themselves, but also their right to hear other views. Any new restrictions on the media are as much of an attack on ordinary Australians as it is on media companies.

“This is just another chapter in the Gillard government’s awful track regard on freedom of speech which has included five simultaneous government inquiries into news media organisations and seen Australia fall to 30th on the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.

“The case has not been made that the Australian media needs more regulation. In fact, following the Andrew Bolt case and numerous spurious ACMA investigations, it is clear that the media actually needs less regulation,” concludes Mr Berg.


Gillard government internet surveillance laws unprecedented threat to civil liberties

“The Gillard Government’s proposed internet surveillance laws will fundamentally erode civil liberties and should be rejected outright,” said Simon Breheny, director of the Rule of Law Project at the free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

Last week the Commonwealth Attorney General’s department released a discussion paper Equipping Australia Against Emerging and Evolving Threats proposing an extraordinary range of government powers over telecommunications and internet.

The proposals include granting power to 16 state and federal security agencies to monitor citizens’ private communications, including Facebook and Twitter accounts. It also proposes giving the Attorney General the power to unilaterally vary warrants and imposes the “data retention” regime which would require internet service providers to record and store all their users’ activity for two years.

“There are huge concerns that the government is considering allowing the Attorney General to arbitrarily vary a warrant without requiring a court order. Making it a crime to refuse to hand over login details to security agencies is also in direct opposition to the right to silence.

“This is completely unacceptable.

“These proposals are a spectacular power grab by the Attorney General’s Department. They are incredibly excessive and completely unjustified. There is no case for this unprecedented intrusion by the government into the lives of citizens and we cannot trust the government with our private data.”

“This is a government that has undermined the authority of parliament and is hostile to freedom of speech. It now appears to have citizens’ private communications on the internet in its sights,” Mr Breheny said.


Finkelstein recommendations must be rejected completely


“The government and opposition must reject the outrageous attack on freedom of speech recommended by the Chair of the Independent Media Inquiry, Ray Finkelstein,” said Chris Berg, a Research Fellow with free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

Mr Berg appeared before the inquiry in November 2011 and is the author of a forthcoming book on freedom of speech.

“The proposals are an unprecedented attack on freedom of speech in Australia.

“The practical effect of Finkelstein’s proposals is to licence newspapers, magazines, and blogs. This is a massive intrusion on what we can read and write.

“His proposed ‘News Media Council’ would be empowered to censor – to force media outlets to remove material from the internet.

“Finkelstein recommends that the print media be regulated in the same way as broadcasting. But similar broadcasting regulations have been used as weapons to try to censor political speech,” said Mr Berg.

“It is shameful that the Media Inquiry has recommended such a massive expansion of regulation. Even ‘news’ websites that have as few as forty visitors a day would have their freedom of speech regulated.

“The government must reject Finkelstein’s proposals out of hand,” said Mr Berg.

The Institute of Public Affairs made a submission to the inquiry.


Coalition’s free speech reform welcome but needs to go further

The Coalition’s announcement that it would reform the Racial Discrimination Act is an important and necessary step towards restoring freedom of speech, but should go further, said Chris Berg, Research Fellow with free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

Mr Berg is the author of a forthcoming book on threats to freedom of speech.

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” because of a person’s race, colour or national or ethnic origin. Opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis announced that an Abbott government would remove the words “offend” and “insult” from the Act.

“Freedom of speech is our most basic and fundamental right”, said Mr Berg.

“The Coalition’s proposal is welcome but restrictions on opinions which ‘humiliate’ or ‘intimidate’ would remain. Only a full repeal of Section 18C will ensure that a case like Andrew Bolt’s will never occur again in Australia,” said Mr Berg.

The Institute of Public Affairs this week launched the Repeal 18C campaign, which seeks the abolition of this restriction on freedom of speech entirely –

“The Andrew Bolt case shows that Australians’ freedom to express their sincerely held opinions has been severely limited by Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

“In a free and open society we will sometimes be offended, embarrassed, even humiliated by the opinions of others, but that should never be an excuse to use the law to shut them up,” said Mr Berg.

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ACMA should be shut down


“The Australian Communications and Media Authority is a threat to freedom of speech and should be shut down,” said Chris Berg, Research Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs, a free market think tank.

“ACMA’s finding against Alan Jones today shows that the regulator is being used for political purposes to attack conservative views.”

The communications regulator found that Alan Jones breached the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice by not making “reasonable efforts” to “present significant viewpoints”.

The investigation was in response to a complaint that the broadcaster described bureaucrats from the NSW Department of Environment as “scumbags that run around preying on productive people”.

“This is an obviously political attack on freedom of speech. It is not up to the government to decide what viewpoints should be broadcast on political matters and in what quantity,” said Mr Berg.

“2GB is a private company and Alan Jones is a private individual. They should not be forced by the government to air views they disagree with.

“Freedom of speech also means freedom not to speak.”

The Federal Government’s Independent Media Inquiry is investigating the possibility of enforcing similar regulations on newspapers.

“This recent finding against Alan Jones underscores how threatening to freedom of speech forcing ‘balance’ can be.

“ACMA’s remaining powers managing the broadcast spectrum should be handed to the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. The regulator should then be shut down,” said Mr Berg.


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