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.
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!"
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?