How on earth do they plan to police it? That’s the first thought on absorbing the changes to the South Australian Electoral Act that  came into force while we were lying on the beach, and that seem to make the Festival State one of very few jurisdictions in the world that demand the identification of bloggers and others making internet-based comment during election campaigns.

Anyone who regularly uses the internet will know that it is a forest of pseudonyms, sock puppets and even fake ministers. Who can forget the fake Stephen Conroy? Closer to Adelaide, there have been fake Mike Ranns around, and plenty of others.

Will the South Australia Electoral Commission really be prepared to chase them all down? What increase in resources will it get in order to do so?

The Twitterverse is all a’Twitter, and the issue even made the front page of the Advertiser this morning with an inflammatory leading article, which alleges that this is a draconian incursion on freedom of speech.

But is the whole thing a beat-up?

It seems the Liberal Party thought everything was okey dokey until the Advertiser designed some bullets for it to fire. The amendments passed through parliament with the support of both major political parties. This morning the office of shadow Attorney-General, Vicky Chapman, told Crikey:

When the Opposition was briefed on the proposed changes by the Electoral Commissioner we were advised this aspect was simply a modernisation of existing rules for political comment in print media. At the time I raised concerns and was reassured the legislation would be read-down and applied in a practical manner. It now appears the Attorney-General may attempt to use this power to hunt down critics, which is totally unacceptable.

Well, maybe. But what’s changed, other than the ‘Tiser making it an issue?

The Tiser‘s suggestion that the laws were rushed through is not correct. They were before Parliament for most of 2009 and many amendments were accepted.

Laws that mandate the identification of writers of letters to the editor or people on radio and television commenting on election material during the actual campaign are very old news, and dealing with them is a commonplace of media practice.

The changes to the South Australian Electoral Act that have caused all the fuss are just a few words. The legislation can be read on the Crikey website here.

The key change is to section 116, which, before these amendments, required people publishing election comment in print form, or on radio or television during the official election campaign (usually about four weeks a year), to be identified.

The amendments have added the words “… in a journal published in electronic form on the Internet”. The definition of “journal” is “newspaper, magazine or other periodical”.

Now, the office of SA Attorney-General Michael Atkinson seemed to be confused about a few matters today. A spokesman  said he was seeking clarification about whether Twitter would be covered. Arguably not, he thought, because it is based outside South Australia.

The laws were intended to apply to mainstream media, he said, and “The Advertiser is just annoyed because it means they have to do a bit more moderation on their internet comments,” before reminiscing on how when he was at the ‘Tiser himself many moons ago, he had to ring up letter-to-the-editor writers to check their identities.

But surely the laws would also apply to every humble blogger and commenter on a blog, since blogs are surely journals? And how would the law be policed?

The Attorney-General’s spokesman said it would be policed in the same way the old laws were — not proactively, but by the electoral commissioner acting in response to complaints.

“It’s just an update to an old law,” he said.

Nevertheless, while the cries of censorship seem a bit overdone, one is left with the firm impression that a bit more thinking might have been a good idea before the law was passed.

Amendments to the  Commonwealth Electoral Act designed to deal with the internet specifically rule out the application to “material published on the Internet [that] forms part of a general commentary on a website”.

Why did South Australia take a different path? One could be forgiven for suspecting it is because comments on the mainstream media sites — specifically the News Limited’s Adelaide Now, have been getting up nostrils.

But asking political commentators to identify themselves for just a few weeks when an election is in progress is hardly a threat to freedom of speech.

Cold showers, everyone.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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