The South Australian Government passed a Bill late last year which makes it illegal during election time to post political views on a blog or comment without also including a name and address.
The bill came into effect on 6 January, but only governs the weeks after a writ has been issued authorising an election, and only content affecting South Australian politicians. It attempts to stop people from not taking responsibility for posts which could sway public opinions on the election.
The new electoral act reads:
"A person must not during an election period, publish material consisting of, or containing a commentary on, any candidate or political party, or the issues being submitted to electors, in written form, in a journal published in electronic form on the internet or by radio or television or broadcast on the internet, unless the material or the program in which the material is presented contains a statement of the name and address (not being a post office box) of a person who takes responsibility for the publication of that material."
Fines of $1250 for citizens and $5000 for media companies (which have to hand over the details) can be issued for non-compliance. It would be enforced through the usual pathways, according to a spokesperson for Attorney-General Michael Atkinson.
Concerns have been raised about the range of the law, such as whether it would apply for Facebook and Twitter. The spokesperson didn't believe this would be the case because the law mentions the word "journal" which is defined as a newspaper, magazine or other periodical.
The spokesperson wasn't even certain if this would include blog sites, since they did not fit into this traditional periodic model.
Atkinson's spokesperson rebuffed reports that the new law was a form of internet censorship. "The real point of this legislation is not blocking or censoring freedom of speech — it's just making sure freedom of speech is attributed to the right person.
"People can say what they want however they want as long as they have their name attributed to it." Media publishers would also have to keep records of those commenting on their site.
No complaint had been registered in response to the Bill, the spokesperson said, adding that the changes only brought into the online sphere the same requirements that have been in place for print publications for the last 70 years.
A spokesperson for Australia's Right to Know, a coalition of 12 major media companies dedicated to addressing concerns about free speech, said that the law was "draconian". They agreed that it couldn't be classed as censorship, but said that it would have a dampening effect on political debate. If people have to give out their name and real address to comment on a site, they might think twice before doing it.
It also raised privacy issues, since the publishing houses would have to keep the name and addresses of commenting people for six months, according to the spokesperson.
"It is a fundamental principle of our democracy that voters are able to express personal views about the competing claims of political candidates without the fear that they might end up on a 'hit list' held by a government whose policies they may have opposed," the spokesperson said.
"Isn't the whole point of public debate, that it is public and that Australians, including South Australians are smart enough to read or listen to the views of others and make up their own minds?" the spokesperson asked. "This is one of the most troubling erosions of the right to free speech in Australia for many years."