SA's Govt 2.0 became mob rule

SA's Govt 2.0 became mob rule

Summary: This week the South Australian Government suddenly vowed to overturn its new electoral laws thanks to a volatile mix of tabloid incitement, voter ignorance and a premier leery of losing a looming election — all fuelled by Twitter's meth-paced rumour mill.

TOPICS: Censorship, Legal

commentary This week the South Australian Government suddenly vowed to overturn its new electoral laws thanks to a volatile mix of tabloid incitement, voter ignorance and a premier leery of losing a looming election — all fuelled by Twitter's meth-paced rumour mill.

government 2.0 atkinson south australia

Should government 2.0 become mob territory?
(Angry mob image by Robert Couse-Baker, CC2.0)

The law was stupid and unenforceable. And I think SA's Attorney-General Michael Atkinson is a goose.

Yet the geeks screeching "censorship!" and "threat to internet freedom!" seemed unaware that this law is just an extension of decades-old rules covering election comment.

Under section 116 of South Australia's Electoral Act 1985 you can't publish election commentary or advertising in print, or on radio or TV, unless it carries the full name and address of the person taking responsibility. You know that magic, "Written and authorised by …"

Such laws exist throughout Australia. They're intended to prevent anonymous misinformation like the Lindsay pamphlet scandal in 2007.

The changes to section 116 introduced by the Electoral (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill 2009 which became so controversial this week were twofold.

Nothing stirs up geeks more than the spectre of internet censorship — except maybe cutting off their torrents.

One, the need to identify the publisher of written material was extended to "a journal", including "a journal published in electronic form on the internet". That word "journal" is defined in the Act as "a newspaper, magazine or other periodical".

Two, anyone posting a comment to such a journal would have to supply their real name and postcode. The publisher would keep those details on file for six months, and provide them to the Electoral Commission when required or face a fine of up to $5000.

There's plenty to criticise here.

Does "journal" include a blog? It sounds like it could.

Does it include Twitter? Twitter could be considered a micro-journal, after all.

"We aim to catch web pages and, therefore, it would cover blog sites, Wikipedia and internet newspapers such as AdelaideNow, but we do not want to go into twittering because that is too much like individual communication over a mobile phone. So, that is where we are putting the boundary," Atkinson told parliament on 2 June 2009.

Atkinson's office didn't seem to think so, but wasn't certain.

So it sounds like a little more thought could have been put into the law. But it's nothing compared with the plight of citizens in China's Xinjiang region. Twenty million people in an area twice the size of New South Wales have reportedly been cut off from SMS and the internet for six months because of ethnic riots.

No one is being "censored" here. They're only being told to put their names to their opinions. And while it could be argued that banning anonymity can prevent people expressing dissenting views, it's only during official election periods, typically four weeks every three years.

But of course nothing stirs up geeks more than the spectre of internet censorship — except maybe cutting off their torrents.

Geeks seemed unaware all this was even happening until The Advertiser and its online arm AdelaideNow pressed the button marked 'O noes! They is censorising your internets!'

Yet, geeks seemed unaware all this was even happening until The Advertiser and its online arm AdelaideNow pressed the button marked "O noes! They is censorising your internets!"

Once that button was pressed, AdelaideNow stirred the outrage and able to display only 1000 comments per article, posted new stories to accommodate the furore.

SA was compared with China, North Korea, Nazi Germany, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Michael Atkinson, already derided for continuing to block an R18+ classification for computer games, was Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe.

Facing this deluge of recreational outrage less than six weeks out from the election on 20 March, and with its lead narrowing in the polls, the government caved in with a tweet from the premier saying "Attn Gen Mick Atkinson will move after election to repeal retrospectively provision of Electoral Act relating to internet/blog poll comment".

Do we really want Government 2.0 to work this way?

Do we really want laws that have been developed over months chucked out in the middle of the night by panicky politicians, once the tabloid media have finally whipped up an angry mob wielding virtual pitchforks?

Or do we want the geeks involved far earlier in the political process, helping to prevent daft internet laws being passed in the first place?

Topics: Censorship, Legal


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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  • But i thought bloggers want to be treated like "real" journalists?

    I took this amendment as recognition that blogs are now equivalent to old media, and in some sense a compliment. Not quite ready to wear full length trousers yet I guess.
  • Do we really...

    "Do we really want laws that have been developed over months chucked out in the middle of the night by panicky politicians,..."

    Absolutely, this is democracy. Perhaps that sentence could have been written as;

    Do we really want laws that have been developed over months by anonymous, unrepresentative bureaucrats, chucked out in the middle of the night by panicky politicians.
  • Difficult question to answer, Stil

    I actually like my politicians to be scared witless of what the electorate thinks of them.

    I also want them to be smart.

    In recent years, it seems to me that our political class has instead filled itself up with brave idiots, and perhaps the odd bit of vociferous correction is overdue.

    Was this the right issue for it? Maybe not, although Atkinson's stated intention to use the laws specifically to identify people he could sue certainly looks like a prior restraint on free political speech to me. And I've seen as many Labor members of parliament compare Australia to China and Iran lately than any of their critics...

    Governments in Australia have spent much of the last decade studiously avoiding electronic interaction with voters, even as virtually every other aspect of society gets jacked-in online. It's well overdue for them to become engaged, but if they're going out of their way to demean and ridicule internet-using voters then perhaps some short, sharp, crowdsourced shocks aren't necessarily a bad thing.
  • There is a difference between advertising and comment

    Current federal disclosure laws already require 'Authorised by' statements on blogs of candidates and parties and any other online presence they have.

    However, there is a huge difference between requiring those seeking office disclosing who authorised the material, and those just commenting on the horse race. Both the SA and Tas legislation go way to far in this aspect, requiring comments to have the same disclosure.

    Annonymous speech is a challenge that has always existed in those nations that value free speech. It is a problem exacerbated by the speed and ease of internet dissemination.

    News or commentary blogs and other online elements that are of a commentary nature,akin to journalism, must be treated quite separately from the promotional material of those seeking office. For the former, one could argue the exceptions in all relevant legislation for news and current affairs programs should exempt those blogs. If not, the online handles and, if you will allow, trading names of the journalists and commentators should suffice. For the latter, disclosure is essential.

    The grey area is people with a connection to a candidate or party, not disclosing connection to said candidate or party, and putting forward news like content (akin to advertorial) on behalf of their party or candidate. That grey area is delt with by reputable bloggers and commentators by disclosure statements, and I would argue the best way to deal with the issue is through public awareness that voters should look for those statements to determine the independence of the writer.
  • Very glad online anger got rid of this bad law

    The troubles with Stilgherrian's point of view (in my opinion) are:

    1) Why shouldn't all political speech be able to be anonymous? I certainly pay more attention to speech that people are willing to put their name to, but sometimes anonymous speech is very important

    2) Publishers were going to have to keep people's full name and address for six months, not just their postcode; only the postcode was to be published

    3) It's a problem calling any group of angry people a "mob". Politicians who pass arrogant laws like this don't back down because they're asked politely, they do it because they're scared. Calling what it takes to do that mob-like behaviour puts it down and makes it harder to make change happen.
  • cyber safety

    I think the laws were just unsafe.

    We teach our schoolchildren not to post personally identifying information on the Internet: so they are not vulnerable to internet nasties.

    There are real risks with putting the same information online as adults, too.

    No matter how it came about, I am glad that a potentially dangerous law was repealed. I hope in future Michael Atkinson and others take into account advice from the "geeks", online security experts, etc, when applying policy to the Internet.
  • It's about the process. it's about real involvement

    I agree that it was a bad law. Indeed, I used the words "stupid and unenforceable" and "plenty to criticise" and "daft", amongst others. others have said stronger things.

    My concern, though, is that such a blatantly problematic law went all the way through the entire parliamentary process and even came into force, yes the people most affected by certain provisions didn't notice it until the Murdoch media wrote an over-hyped story.

    That says something to be about the complete disconnect between the noisy and self-absorbed online world an the actual mechanisms of government.

    I've said in other places before, we shouldn't expect politicians to come and play in our sandpit when the actual mechanisms of power are elsewhere.
  • Reporter Stilgherrian misses the point

    This wasn't about censorship as such. It was clear that it was an extension of an existing law.
    The problem was the way it was put forward. Michael Atkinson is under constant attack from people and he goes out of his way to find these people. He doesn't give a damn unless these people exist in his electorate. This is the man that is refusing the entire population R18+ classification and he only listens, sort of, to the people in his area. Its absolutely stupid.
    There were a couple more issues.
    One was that politicians did not have to post their full details online for security reasons. Sure enough they don't want angry voters on their doorstep. What about police officers, nurses, social workers or any person who wants to protect their privacy. As soon as you post once online with your full name and details it is essentially online forever. Someone could then easily type your name into google and track you down.
    We try to teach kids about online safety, don't put personal information online and then they go pass a law demanding anyone posting online about the election to do it.
    Another issue is there were no guidelines involved. No one knew exactly what the laws were going to cover. They said facebook is not covered because the servers are located overseas. But then what about my server located here in Adelaide. What happens if someone posts an unrelated comment to my blog containing a political opinion. Would I have been fined $5,000 because I did not take the users address.
    The last major thing is that its totally unenforceable. How are they going to verify all these random names and postcodes online. If anything I think it creates a false sense of belief in postings. Most people are cautious towards what they read online. But if this law is suddenly in place people may go, oh well this law is in place all these comments must be by who they say they are, which opens it totally up to impersonation which is what they are trying to stop.

    The governments around AU and the world need to start embracing technology and consult with advisors before laws like this are put in.
    They should start having online votes on different topics before laws go in to ensure what they are doing is what the public actually wants.

    Reversing this law is the right thing to do and hopefully its a wakeup call to the governments around Australia.
  • To Stilgherrian

    Maybe if more industry journo's did their job of actually finding stories and reporting on relevant legislation instead of governement talking points, we wouldn't have to rely on tabloids to inform and enrage us.

    Also, if governements were more transparent and didn't try to pass secret bills in the middle of the night, the voters wouldn't be so up in arms over their constant privacy and censorship creep.

    And stop denying it, this is definately censorship becasue it discourages people from making political statements. If a government is stupid enough to be toppled by false allegations then they deserve to be chucked out.
  • When they are this stupid, yes

    "Do we really want laws that have been developed over months chucked out in the middle of the night by panicky politicians, " ?

    If you introduce laws that are unenforceable, and the politicians should have known that, you make an ass of the law, which debases other good laws.

    Yes, this is enforceable for print media, tv and radio. But the internet? Not a hope.
  • crikey, surely a s s isn't a forbidden word?

    ZDnet need to loosen up, if it is.
  • anonymity

    Yes we should have our say annonymously. When I contact my MP the secretary want to know my name and address and check the electoral role. What am I? A computer programme ringing up the electorate. Why should I give my name and address to make a comment about MY government. We have lost our government. The governor general is useless and undermines the office she holds. Just there for the fun and money. Remember we have an international government. Obama said Iran should be accountable to the international community. Really? A sovereign government. As much as I am disagree with the way they run their country. Politicians do not do as the electorate wishes. We have lost our government. Committees pop up, such as, the single mothers committee, saying children from birth should be put in child care (the Matrix). Oldies committee president pops and and says we should work until we are 90 y o or longer if we wish. These people are just 'puppets' of the government. So titstorm may well be a government 'puppet' as well. With the crash it just gave the civil servants a break. Titstorm may well be civil servants, controlled by the international government.
  • Yes, it's a donkey in this context

    This is the stupidity of automated filters. The American word for a person's bottom happens to share spelling with a word meaning donkey, and you're using that latter meaning here.

    Yes, ZDNet needs to loosen its donky.
  • Why are you hiding??

    You want to make posts and comments about things that not just effect the lives and careers of the politicians, but the nation as well. Most people believe what they have to say to be true and if that is the case, why hide behind anonimity?? Many half truths and outright lies ae posted anonimously to cover the real truth.
    If you really have something worth saying, (and I'm sure you all do) then check your facts, grow some balls and stand by your comments. Otherwise stop wasting my time!!