The Abbott Government’s plan to increase online surveillance has raised concerns relating to online freedom and even freedom of speech. We had a chat to Greens Senator Scott Ludlam who handles the Broadband, Communications & the Digital Economy portfolio, about his thoughts on data retention, freedom of speech and how the world’s current state of unrest may fast track controversial legislation.
So, many Australians are aware that the Coalition Government wants to retain metadata, but to your knowledge, is the government planning to infringe on online freedoms in any other way?
That’s an excellent question. I would say so, but it’s broader than that. I guess there’s an agenda at the moment to basically crack down on civil liberties both on the internet and the offline world.
So, there is a Bill before the parliament next Monday which quite dramatically expands ASIO’s power and potentially criminalises reporting of national security work. Then there is the data retention plan and there is also another plan down the track which, it’s been argued, would reverse the burden of proof for anybody who was returning to Australia from certain parts of the Middle East. They’d effectively have to prove they hadn’t committed a crime.
So there are all those things in the mix and it’s likely that there are other things which the government hasn’t disclosed yet. But data retention is one that we are focusing on very strongly.
Do you think the raised terror threat status is being used as a means to push through this sort surveillance legislation more quickly?
I don’t think there’s any doubt at all. [The public] are seeing hundreds of police, helicopters and very large scale terror raids in Sydney and in Brisbane, and you can imagine there will be more in the coming days. This, combined with raising the terror threat, combined with the evidence of unhinged violence perpetuated by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. I think there’s no doubt that the government is going to use that heightened sense of fear to force through, with very limited debate, lots of legislation. It’s effectively very similar to what happened after 9/11. And once it’s there, once it’s on the statute books, it’s very, very hard to wind back.
Do you think if this sort of legislation passes, it will impact on freedom of speech online?
It’s hard to say and I guess it depends on which bit of the package you focus on. If you just focus on data retention, studies around the world have shown that people who know they’re under surveillance will actively self-censor. You live your life in a qualitatively different way if you know you’re being spied upon. So that’s bigger than just freedom of speech obviously, but they’re the sort of impacts that we’re looking at.
As well as individual censorship, do you think these measures will impact on press freedom?
I think there is no doubt that journalism at all scales is threatened, whether you work for a Murdoch media or a blog. That’s principally because with metadata snooping, because it happens without a warrant, you don’t have to justify what you’re up to.
There are dozens and dozens of agencies that can do it at the moment and it effectively circumvents the shield laws that journalists use to protect themselves and their sources. So that’s one example of how this form of surveillance (because it’s warrantless and doesn’t really need to be justified through anybody) is already harming the practice of journalism and public whistleblowing.
Will limiting press freedom and journalistic protection result in Australians becoming uninformed about issues arising in the Middle East?
I really hope not, because there are currents pushing in two directions. One is if you’re in the catchment of the Daily Telegraph and you use that to get your current affairs, just to pick one example, the front pages of that paper are screaming fear and bloodlust to people every single day. And if that’s all you’ve got, if that’s your entire media diet, then that’s pretty scary.
But of course in the other direction you have this huge diversity of much more thoughtful, considered and constructive, opinion, analysis, and advocacy out there that can kind of balances that unhinged tabloid screaming factor. So it’s up to people to discover that stuff and share it socially online. I think there are plenty of signs of hope because there are so many independent voices out there.
On the topic of free speech, earlier this year the government chose to retain section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, do you think this infringes on free speech?
I kind of don’t buy it. I don’t think it impacts on freedom of speech in the way that we traditionally understand it. The way that the courts have interpreted it thus far is that your speech isn’t free to the extent that it actually harms people.
I think the existing structure of the law is not perfect by any means. I saw it referred to as an asbestos house; it’s only really dangerous if you start dismantling it, and the unintentional consequences can be quite damaging. I think that in a way this is quite an apt metaphor. It’s not perfect but a lot of the alternatives are worse. As George Brandis found out when he started his defence of bigotry, your unintended consequences can be quite severe.
If you want to know more about Scott Ludlam and the Greens, check them out at- http://scott-ludlam.greensmps.org.au/
Or watch him tonight on ABC’s Q and A.