Dangerous Law In Australia Could Criminalize Basic Reporting and Gut Internet Freedom

trevor

Executive director, Freedom of the Press Foundation

Earlier today, the Australian Senate passed a sweeping new ‘anti-terror’ law that will allow the Australian government to conduct mass surveillance on all of its citizens, will make whistleblowing on intelligence issues a crime, and threatens to criminalize basic reporting. The bill is an enormous threat to press freedom, free speech, and privacy, and we condemn it in the strongest terms.

The bill still has to pass Australia’s House and be adopted by the country’s prime minister. We implore both the House and Prime Minister to re-consider, but many believe it a foregone conclusion that the bill will become law of the land as early as next week.

The Sydney Morning Herald describes the provision that seeks to criminalize whistleblowing and reporting:

Anyone — including journalists, whistleblowers and bloggers — who "recklessly" discloses "information ... [that] relates to a special intelligence operation" faces up to 10 years' jail.

Any operation can be declared "special" and doing so gives ASIO [Australia's intelligence agency] criminal and civil immunity. Many, including lawyers and academics, have said they fear the agency will abuse this power.

"These provisions have nothing to do with the press" claimed one Senator, despite the major parties explicitly rejecting an amendment that would have exempted journalists reporting on issues in the public interest. It's clear the wording could potentially criminalize any reporting on the ASIO that the ASIO doesn't like, given they can deem any information they want "special intelligence."

But it’s not just whistleblowers and reporters who have to worry. Any citizen who merely tweet news stories or share them on Facebook that the government deems to include “special intelligence,” may be setting themselves up for a prison sentence. Human Rights Watch’s Elaine Pearson explained in the Guardian:

The offence even seems to apply to users of social media who share leaked information by reposting it on Facebook or Twitter. As it stands, the offence covers “recipients of an unauthorised disclosure of information” who “engage in any subsequent disclosure.” Intention to cause harm is not required and it doesn’t matter if another person read, heard, or viewed the information in question – just the act of making it available to others would be sufficient.

Another provision allows the government, with one court order, to monitor an unlimited number of Australians’ Internet activity. Again, the Sydney Morning Herald explains:

The new laws also allow ASIO to seek just one warrant to access a limitless number of computers on a computer network when attempting to monitor a target, which lawyers, rights groups, academics and Australian media organisations condemned.

They said this would effectively allow the entire internet to be monitored, as it is a "network of networks" and the bill doesn't specifically define what a computer network is.

This law is not only a clear threat to the privacy of journalists, but all Australians who use the Internet. The draconian bill was, of course, passed under the guise of anti-terrorism—as most liberties-restricting laws are these days—despite the fact that Australia has not suffered a major terrorism attack inside their country since 9/11. Sadly, the Australian government has, for the past few months, been engaged in fear-mongering at almost unprecedented scale, marked by vague terror alerts, and raids on hundreds of people that have led to only one charge but a lot of unanswered questions.

We add our name to the growing list of concerned journalists, lawyers, and human rights organizations in strongly condemn this dangerous new law. We also call on Australia’s House and Prime Minister to do the right thing and reject it.

You can read more about the bill's disturbing details at EFF.