Roxon edges away, Conroy doubles down

In Saturday’s papers, the Attorney General Nicola Roxon suggested that the case for her own department’s data retention and internet surveillance laws had not been made. She is absolutely right. But that relatively positive development was somewhat undermined by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s passionate defence of more internet regulation on Meet the Press on the same day. (You can watch the video here, and the transcript is here.)

Followers of earlier internet freedom debates will recall that Conroy’s advocacy of the internet filter in 2007 and 2008 left no moral panic and strawman unturned. He’s taking the same strategy on data retention policies.

First, the moral panic. “Organised crime around the world has taken up the benefits of the internet.” Yet there is much less to “cybercrime” than the panic merchants would have us think – I examined the origins of those big, terrifying cybercrime statistics in the Sunday Age mid-last year.

Second, the strawman. In Conroy’s view, opponents of these new security proposals believe that the “internet should be completely unregulated”, and that they want to “abandon all law” when we go online. This is simply nonsense, and he surely knows it. Any activity online is governed by very real national laws. (An excellent book on the complex interaction between an international network and local law is Who Rules the Net?: Internet Governance and Jurisdiction from 2003.) Conroy clearly imagines his government’s critics to be nothing more than teenaged cyber-utopians. But his government’s proposal is not to introduce existing law to an online world, but to massively increase the power and extent of those laws.

The Attorney General’s department paper proposing the data retention laws was vague. If the best argument for them is the sort of distraction and hyperbole Conroy presented on Saturday, then their reality may be worse than we think.


Beer barns were the problem. Now, apparently, they’re the solution

Sydney’s problem with violence could be attributed to any number of causes – lack of late night transport, ineffective or inefficient policing, small streets over-filled with touchy drunks, or a cultural approach to alcohol that dictates that to have fun, you need to get wasted. With this wealth of potential reasons for violence, NSW Hospitality Minister George Souris’ preferred target, small bars, seem an odd choice on which to pin the blame.

Souris, as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, says that small bars are associated with “a lower level of surveillance, a lower level of supervision, a lower level of compliance.” He went on to say that “for some reason the bigger venues that also have gambling associated with them are better policed, better supervised than those smaller venues”.

And yet, the proponents of the small bar policy made precisely the opposite claim in 2007, when NSW undertook liquor licensing reform. Continue Reading →


But what if Howard was introducing these internet surveillance laws?

In today’s Australian Financial Review, John Roskam urges Labor MPs to ask themselves the obvious question:

Labor MPs should ask themselves something … along the lines of: “How would I feel if a conservative government did some of the things the Gillard government now wants to do?” …

The press censorship the Gillard government is contemplating is bad, but from the perspective of Labor backbenchers, the motives for it might be understandable. They believe it’s their chance to get back at a media that they believe has been biased and unfair. But no such excuse is available when it comes to what the government wants to do about internet surveillance.

Read the whole thing here.


Outrageous new security powers proposed by the Gillard government

My ABC Drum column this week discusses the obnoxious proposals of the Attorney-General’s Department to massively increase the government’s internet surveillance and security powers.

Any proposal by the government to increase its own power should be treated with scepticism. Double that scepticism when the government is vague about why it needs that extra power. Double again when those powers are in the area of law and order. And double again every time the words “national security” are used.

Read the whole thing here. Simon Breheny, Research Fellow with the IPA’s Rule of Law Project sent out this press release earlier opposing the security law proposals.


David Kemp on Menzies and free speech

A strong, compelling piece by David Kemp in The Australian today on how Robert Menzies would have seen the proposals to boost the Australian Press Council and the recommendations of the Finkelstein Inquiry. As David writes,

The concept of industry self-regulation is in principle objectionable where that self-regulation crosses from the voluntary to the compulsory, but it is nowhere more dangerous than in relation to the right of editors, journalists and members of the public to freely say what they think, regardless of whom they offend, and whether what they say is right or wrong.

If they are offensive, they should be answered. If they are wrong, others should correct them. To force them to say something they do not believe is the technique of the medieval church and the communist or fascist state.


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.


Freedom of Association trampled by NSW consorting laws

My Drum column this week is on NSW’s revamped consorting laws and their long, disreputable history back to the razor gangs of the 1930s.

The first person was convicted under the amended laws last week. Yet he was not a bikie, but a 21-year-old man the NSW police admits has no link with motorcycle gangs.

It was the same in the 1930s. The police found consorting laws useful to clear the streets of prostitution, but not so useful in clamping down on razor crime. Consorting laws are good for smoothing the wheels of prosecution – if you think the goal of a legal system is to maximise prosecutions. But its ability to prevent or punish serious criminal activity is limited.

Freedom of association is too important to be casually thrown away. But it has been eroded by ill-conceived law and order legislation for some time. In a 2008 edition of the IPA Review, Greg Barns wrote about the problems with anti-bikie laws then being passed in South Australia. Unfortunately – as those, and similar laws have failed – the response of state governments has not been to rethink their justification, but to double down.


Aunty silently watching the debate over media future

In the Australian Financial Review today, John Roskam faces the silent player over the future of the media: the ABC, funded by taxpayers for nearly $1 billion a year.

There is of course another big media organisation. It’s the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It’s owned by the government, it’s funded by the government, and it’s operated by people picked by the government.

The business challenge for Fairfax and News executives is to get paying customers to buy their product. The business challenge for ABC executives is to keep on getting $1 billion a year from the federal cabinet.


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