Opening statement to Commonwealth Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into Freedom of speech in Australia

With Simon Breheny

Freedom of speech is a basic Australian value. A survey, commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs and released today, finds that 95 per cent of Australians say freedom of speech is important and 57 per cent say it is very important. If you would like copies of that poll, it is available here today. Australia’s commitment to freedom of speech makes this country one of the most diverse, prosperous and socially welcoming on the face of the planet. Laws that undermine free speech put at risk our success story as a socially inclusive and cohesive nation.

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is one of the most significant restrictions on freedom of speech in this country. Along with the rest of the provisions of part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act, section 18C ought to be repealed outright. It is an excessive, unnecessary and counterproductive restriction on Australians’ liberties. Alternative proposals for reform would not solve the problems with the legislation that have been identified in particular by recent court cases involving section 18C. In our analysis, simply removing some of the words from the section—or worse, replacing those words with new words—would be ineffective or redundant, or would create even more uncertainty about the scope of the law.

Some participants in this debate argue that freedom of speech is protected by section 18D, but section 18D is a weak and unstable foundation for such an important right. Section 18D has been applied in just three out of more than 70 cases that have been decided by the courts since part IIA was first inserted into the Racial Discrimination Act in 1995. Parliament should not imagine that section 18D provides any certainty about the law. In the QUT case, Judge Jarrett noted a conflict in the authorities about the way in which section 18D might operate.

More fundamentally, section 18D places a burden on the respondent to prove why he or she should have the right to speak freely. This is not a requirement that a free country like Australia should be proud of. A fence is not a moral trump card. Australia is driven by other values, including individual freedom and a democracy. Section 18C harms these values. We urge this committee to recommit to the liberal democratic values that make this country great and to recommend the full repeal of part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act. Thank you.

The Case for the Repeal of Section 18C

With Simon Breheny, Morgan Begg, Andrew Bushnell, and Sebastian Reinehr

Executive Summary: Research conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs demonstrates that section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 must be repealed to protect freedom of speech in Australia. Part A of this report comprehensively outlines the case for the full repeal of section 18C, and the reasons why alternative proposals for reform fail to stand up to scrutiny. The key arguments of this report are that section 18C:

  • Is a restriction on the human right to freedom of speech and an attack on human dignity;
  • Undermines democracy
  • Is inconsistent with a peaceful and cohesive society
  • Punishes defendants through an unfair process
  • Is partially redundant
  • Undermines attempts to combat racism
  • Is unconstitutional.

The report rejects the following proposed compromises as inadequate:

  • Removing ‘offend’ and ‘insult’ from section 18C;
  • Replacing ‘offend’ and insult’ with functionally similar language;
  • Reforming the process for hearing section 18C or the Australian Human Rights Commission.

None of these reforms will address all of the problems created by section 18C. We conclude that section 18C must be repealed in full, along with the associated provisions in Part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Part B of this report outlines the history of section 18C and how it has been interpreted. This information forms the basis for the argumentation in Part A.

Available in PDF here.

Opening statement to Commonwealth Economics References Committee inquiry into Personal choice and community impacts

With Simon Breheny

It is the view of the Institute of Public Affairs that paternalism is an unstable and illiberal basis for public policy. What do we mean by ‘paternalism’? It is important to be conceptually clear, because many policies have, rightly or wrongly, been lumped under the phrase ‘nanny state’. John Kleinig defines paternalism as when ‘X acts to diminish Y’s freedom, to the end that Y’s good may be secured’. That is, an outside person—in this case, the government—prevents you from doing something that you want to do and does so in your own benefit.

Today I am going to make three arguments about paternalism. The first is that paternalism has a long history. The belief that the state should control people for their own good is arguably the oldest political philosophy. But modern paternalism leans heavily on the findings of behavioural economics, which can be summed up simply as ‘people often make bad choices’. Under this argument, we are irrational: we underestimate risk, we employ wishful thinking, we discount information that conflicts with our beliefs. Many of these cognitive errors are predictable. Paternalism therefore uses the state to remedy or mollify them. In our view, this argument for paternalism is distinctly one-sided. Policy makers are as susceptible to the cognitive errors that are commonly attributed to consumers. Policy makers deploy heuristics. They also search for evidence to confirm their beliefs, and they are biased towards action in the face of unknown risk. Behavioural economics should make us more sceptical about paternalism than we previously were. Paternalist intervention should be seen as a trade-off between error-ridden consumers and error-ridden policy makers.

My second point concerns ignorance. Values are subjective, and it is a non-trivial task to determine people’s best preferences. Not everybody shares the same tolerance of risk. Some people prefer hedonism to health. Policy makers cannot assume that they are acting on behalf of people’s best interests when those interests are diverse and even unknowable. In their book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler try to deal with the subjection by asking people what they would prefer in retrospect—that is, by asking people whether their past decisions were correct according to their own values. This way, they can try to divine people’s true or unbiased preferences. Unsurprisingly, people regret a lot of their choices. But it is not clear why retrospective preferences are more true than current ones. Why should our future selves have a veto over our current selves? After all, not all regret is rational, and our future selves are subject to cognitive error as well.

The final point I would like to make today is that paternalism is fundamentally undemocratic. Paternalism treats citizens like subordinates. The paternalist’s model of irrational individual choice is starkly at odds with the democratic philosophy of individual choice. We all believe as democrats that adult Australians have a moral right to make political decisions. We believe that Australian citizens have the minimum level of rationality and autonomy to choose who to vote for, which is one of the most informationally intensive decisions an individual is asked to make. My argument is that we are exactly as rational in the voting booth as we are in the supermarket; the voter is the same as the consumer. So, what are elected policy makers suggesting when they argue that their electors are incapable of making consumption decisions without the help of bureaucrats? Or, more fundamentally, what right do elected policy makers who derive their political legitimacy from that free and competent vote have to turn around and inform the voters that they are unable to make decisions about what they eat, drink and consume?

Submission to the Acting Independent National Security Legislation Monitor Inquiry into section 35P of the ASIO Act

With Simon Breheny

Introduction: This submission has been drafted in response to an invitation to the Institute of Public Affairs to make a submission to the Acting Independent National Security Legislation Monitor’s Inquiry into section 35P of the ASIO Act.

Our submission recommends the repeal of section 35P. We contend that there are three key problems with section 35P:

  • Individuals can engage in illegal conduct without being aware they are breaking the law
  • Restrictions on disclosure about special intelligence operations last forever
  • Any exemption will provide only limited protection for journalists but journalism is an ambiguous term, and the exemption will not protect freedom of speech

Available in PDF here.

A social problem, not a technological problem: Bullying, cyberbullying and public policy

With Simon Breheny

Introduction: Bullying among children is a significant and serious issue. In recent years, thephenomenon described as “cyberbullying” has received a large amount of social, political, and academic attention.

The Commonwealth government has announced that it is seeking legislative change to deal with cyberbullying. The government plans to institute a Children’s e-Safety Commissioner with power to takedown harmful content directed at children from the social media sites.

The Children’s e-Safety Commissioner is a serious threat to freedom of speech.

The purpose of this paper is to outline the scope of the cyberbullying problem, the conceptual framework within it must be understood, and develop principles by which policymakers can address the cyberbullying problem. Without understanding the cyberbullying phenomenon it is impossible to devise effective policy that will not have unintended consequences and threaten basic liberties like freedom of speech. Unfortunately it is not clear that the government has clearly understood the causes, consequences, and characteristics of cyberbullying.

This paper argues that cyberbullying is a subset of bullying. It is bullying by electronic means. It is not a problem of a different kind from bullying in an offline environment. Cyberbullying is a social problem, not a technological one.

Available in PDF here.

The cyberbullying moral panic

With Simon Breheny

Bullying among children is a serious problem. At its tragic worst it can lead to suicide. But it is a serious social problem, not a technological one.

Earlier this year, the Coalition government released a discussion paper ‘Enhancing Online Safety for Children.’ The proposals contained within the discussion paper have been drafted with the intention of tackling cyberbullying — that is, bullying using digital technology. Unfortunately they will do nothing to solve the bullying problem. And, by establishing a ‘Children’s e-Safety Commissioner’ with powers to take down material from social media websites, it will increase government control over the internet and clearly threaten free speech.

The discussion paper outlines three key measures the government aims to implement to address cyberbullying: the establishment of the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner; developing an effective complaints system, backed by legislation, to get harmful material down fast from large social media sites; and examining existing Commonwealth legislation to determine whether to create a new, simplified cyberbullying offence.

The key plank in this policy is the creation of a new power to ‘get harmful material down fast.’ This is an explicit censorship power. Pure and simple. And it’s a particularly disappointing development coming from this government. In a speech to the Samuel Griffith Society in 2012 entitled ‘In Defence of Freedom of Speech’, then Opposition legal affairs spokesman Senator George Brandis said:

The measure of a society’s commitment to political freedom is the extent of its willingness to respect the right of every one of its citizens to express their views, no matter how offensive, unattractive or eccentric they may seem to others.

The proposed establishment of an e-Safety Commissioner is not a policy that lives up to Brandis’ high-minded rhetoric. Indeed the proposal moves Australia in precisely the opposite direction. If the Coalition’s e-safety policy is implemented, this government will be doing more to restrict free speech than it is to defend it.

Several concepts used in the discussion paper are ambiguous. The term ‘harm’ is itself a term that describes a broad range of conduct, from the very serious to the trivial. Whenever the basis of a bureaucratic power is vague it gives discretion to public servants. In the case of the e-safety commissioner, it means that none of us can be sure whether we’ll be censored for something we say online.

The proposed regime carries some very serious risks. The commissioner will not be infallible. There will be mistakes, and content that should never have been taken down will be removed by the government.

We’ve seen this before. In June last year, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission admitted that it had accidentally blocked 250,000 websites in an attempt to tackle online scams.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The risk of inadvertent removal of material is serious. But perhaps even more concerning is the idea that the government should grant itself this kind of power at all. It’s not the role of government to judge what is and is not acceptable social discourse. Those important decisions must be reserved for rational, free individuals.

And like any government initiative there is the risk of scope creep. What starts as a small censorship regime grows into a large censorship regime. In a liberal democracy there is only one acceptable level of censorship: none.

On the flip side, it will be impossible for the e-Safety Commissioner to protect children from all cyberbullying. Lines have to be drawn somewhere. And wherever the government creates that threshold there are going to be children who will be the subject of bullying that is not caught by the government’s cyberbullying regime. Additionally, no matter how carefully this policy is implemented there will be cases where the commissioner will fail to remove legitimately harmful material.

Of course, that won’t stop parents from trusting that the government is putting an end to cyberbullying. Governments love to pretend they have everything under control. And many parents will trust that the commissioner has covered the field. But the risk is that the existence of this program provides a false sense of security. Parents will rely on the government to protect their children. This attitude is instinctive — the government is taking more responsibility so I don’t need to take as much.

This attitude has a dramatic impact on consumer behaviour. Parents who rely on the e-safety commissioner no longer direct capital towards free market answers to cyberbullying. This outcome is a direct result of the government intervening in an area where government action is unnecessary. Implementing a government-run online safety program creates perverse incentives that lead to fewer privately developed solutions.

There are a very broad range of tools available to parents, teachers and schools which can assist in effectively targeting cyberbullying.

The most important mechanism that exists to deal with cyberbullying is direct reporting to the social media networks themselves. It’s in the interest of social media sites to have highly developed reporting mechanisms in place. Facebook allows users to report violations of its statement of rights and responsibilities. The statement contains an explicit reference to bullying: ‘You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.’ The outline of Community Standards expands on its uncompromising stance: ‘Facebook does not tolerate bullying or harassment. We allow users to speak freely on matters and people of public interest, but take action on all reports of abusive behaviour directed at private individuals. Repeatedly targeting other users with unwanted friend requests or messages is a form of harassment.’

Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+, and other social media sites likely to come under the purview of the government’s commissioner have all developed similar policies.

Distinct from internal reporting tools, there is also a growing range of anti-cyberbullying software available to parents. The number of programs available is impressive. They range in scope, complexity, format and price, and can provide a remarkable amount of parental control.‘CyberSynchs’ is an application that identifies bullying and other inappropriate behaviour, and then sends a report to parents. Trend Micro’s ‘Online Guardian’ allows parents to monitor their children’s social media traffic for pre-programmed key words and phrases.

There are hundreds of these products currently available. And more are being developed all the time. Primary and secondary schools also install filters at the network level. These are the solutions that are available to parents seeking to protect their children from cyberbullying.

There are also a number of existing legal remedies that cover the same or similar conduct as that targeted by the government under the e-safety policy. Violent threats; menacing, harassing or offensive conduct online; stalking; and unauthorised access to accounts are all criminal offences.

The truth is that cyberbullying is bullying. It’s awful. It’s damaging.But cyberbullying is no more or less a problem than run-of-the-mill playground bullying. The same approach should be used for both. Parents are more in tune with the emotional disposition of their own children. They know better than any government-appointed commissioner how their child will react to incidents of bullying, and they know best how to deal with it. Parents are the best anti-bullying advocates their children will ever have.

The proposed Children’s e-Safety Commissioner is a policy born of lliberalism. It patronises parents, and it infringes freedom of speech. The government should not proceed with its e-censorship proposal.

Submission to the Department of Communications Discussion Paper ‘Enhancing Online Safety for Children’

With Simon Breheny

Executive summary: The government’s proposed Children’s e-Safety Commissioner represents a serious threat to freedom of speech and digital liberty. The proposed regime would create extraordinary new powers, which would be conferred on a government-appointed digital censor. The power to order certain material to be pulled down from large social media sites also gives discretionary power to a government bureaucrat.

The proposal misdiagnoses the problem of bullying on and offline. Bullying can be a significant and very harmful social problem – whether on or offline. Cyberbullying is not a special case demanding of specific laws. It should be dealt with using the same legal framework as bullying that takes place offline.

The existence of a Children’s e-Safety Commissioner will not prevent or protect young people against cyberbullying. There are many forms of harmful online activity that will not be caught by the government’s proposed regime. The regime may also drive cyberbullying to sites that are less easily monitored by parents and guardians. Smaller social media sites are less likely to have rigorously enforced community standards yet the government’s proposal is aimed only at large social media sites.

The proposal also ignores existing remedies. There are a variety of current laws that exist to catch the same conduct that the government seeks to proscribe. Legal remedies for stalking, harassment, intimidation and a range of other unacceptable behaviours are already available to victims of bullying.

The Children’s e-Safety Commissioner may provide a false sense of security among parents that cyberbullying has been dealt with. Some parents may not feel that their own efforts are still necessary when faced with the existence of the government’s cyberbullying program. Parents may fail to employ monitoring and security software believing it to be redundant. However, there will be cases of cyberbullying that are not caught by the government’s scheme but that would have been caught by parental vigilance.

Available in PDF here.

Opening statement to Commonwealth Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee inquiry into Comprehensive revision of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979

With Simon Breheny

Thank you, first of all, to the committee chair, Senator Scott Ludlam, and the other members of the committee for inviting us to speak with you this morning. At the outset, let me make some general statements of principle. These principles should guide any reform to the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979.

Interception and access of telecommunications data by government agencies is an intrusion into the human right to privacy. As individuals we have the right to control aspects of our lives that we wish to keep private. Government access to communications data should be strictly limited. The first limitation on access to communications data is the requirement that it must be targeted towards a person reasonably suspected of criminal wrongdoing. The second limitation is that interception of and access to communications data should only be allowed in accordance with a warrant issued by the courts. Warrants allow the interception and access to communications data in limited circumstances. They create a threshold for interception and access and ensure a level of accountability of the law enforcement agencies conducting criminal investigations by judicial oversight.

The proposal to introduce a mandatory data retention regime in Australia is a clear violation of these principles. Mandatory data retention would establish a systematic and ongoing mass surveillance regime on the internet activity of everyone in Australia. It is a very serious breach of privacy; it is easily circumvented and it is likely to suffer significant mission creep. As my colleague Chris Berg has argued, mandatory data retention will also have a chilling effect on free speech. The Australian privacy principles were updated and implemented just six months ago, yet mandatory data retention is a policy that would require the explicit rejection of these principles—namely, that businesses, including internet service providers, should only retain the information that is required for business purposes and should delete that data when it is no longer required for those same purposes.

We have seen in recent times some very significant breaches of privacy by government agencies. Most recently, the Australian Federal Police was responsible for a very serious breach of privacy when it revealed the identities of criminal suspects and other details about criminal investigations. Such inadvertent disclosures are unavoidable, but government should be seeking to reduce the possibility of these disclosures where possible. It is also worth noting that it has not been adequately shown that preservation orders are not adequate to achieve the aims of the law enforcement. Stored preservation orders are targeted, proportional data retention schemes that offer a flexible and privacy-protecting mechanism to law enforcement agencies. It is striking to us how rarely the existence of this mechanism is discussed in the data retention debate when it would seem to resolve all the problems with the TIA act that have been identified by law enforcement agencies.

The authorised access regime established under the TIA act allows for warrantless access to communications data stored by telecommunications companies. This is a clear breach of the principle that access to communications data should not occur unless a warrant has been issued by judicial authority. The TIA act annual report 2012-13 revealed that there were more than 300,000 access authorisations made in that year. Some of these authorisations were made by organisations like Australia Post, the Clean Energy Regulator, Harness Racing New South Wales and the Wyndham City Council. The authorised access regime should be abolished and should be replaced with a regime where communications data may only be accessed in accordance with the warrant issued for that purpose.

One of the problems we have identified in this debate concerns the word ‘metadata’ as opposed to ‘content data’. In our view the word ‘metadata’ describes nothing of analytical value; it is all just data. Indeed, as has often been pointed out in this debate, metadata is capable of revealing even more than what has been described as content data. We are happy to discuss the issue in detail if the committee wishes. Thank you.

Opening statement to Commonwealth Environment and Communications Legislation Committee inquiry into the News Media Reform Package 2013

With Simon Breheny

The news media reform package 2013 is nothing less than an attack on freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Australia. It is absurd to claim that the government could institute a regulator to regulate media self-regulators like the Australian Press Council and pretend that doing so would not constitute substantial new government oversight of the free press. This is a fundamental conceptual error with very disturbing consequences and, in our view, government oversight of the press is unacceptable in a liberal democracy. The government has no business deciding what constitutes fairness or balance in a media whose job it is to hold them to account. That ought to be a bedrock principle accepted by all sides of political debate.

We have a number of specific points we would like to raise about the proposed public interest media advocate. The government-appointed PIMA would be responsible for deciding which news media self-regulation bodies’ members would receive an exemption from the Privacy Act and which would not. This regime means that news outlets will never be able to write about things that are claimed to be personal or sensitive. The news-gathering functions of a news media organisation would be shackled for fear of breaching the Privacy Act. To us, the coupling of Privacy Act exemptions with regulated membership clearly makes this a de facto licensing system, further emphasising the significance of the attack on free expression that the proposal represents.

The minister can directly and unilaterally appoint any person to the public interest media advocate role. Government members of this committee might reflect about whom a future government could appoint and whether instilling such significant powers over the press on a political appointee is democratically desirable. This is doubly so because of the entirely undefined concept of public interest that this entire project seems to be founded on. I am sure that our idea of what is in the public interest is different to the ideas of some members of the committee.

The proposed regime also undermines fundamental legal rights. The bills provide no avenue for appeal of a decision of the PIMA, they reverse the burden of proof in cases of proposed media mergers and they use ambiguous terms that give the PIMA enormous discretionary power.

The most disappointing part of this process is how the government has completely shirked the necessary reform to regulatory frameworks governing media and communications. There is almost nothing in these bills that deals with the serious and important problems in media regulation brought about by technological convergence. Instead, the process seems to have been entirely diverted by a partisan battle between one side of politics and one media company.

We have one final, broader concern. Chris Berg and I appeared before another Senate inquiry into another bill less than two months ago, on 23 January 2013, to defend freedom of speech against another real threat posed by legislation that this government proposed. That bill was the draft Human Rights and Anti-discrimination Bill 2012. Both pieces of legislation seek to shrink civil society by restricting free speech, one under the guise of human rights and the other under the guise of fairness and accuracy in the media. For these reasons, it is our view that the bills should be rejected.

Opening statement to Commonwealth Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012

With Simon Breheny and Tim Wilson

We thank the committee for inviting us to give evidence this afternoon. The exposure draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012 is an attack on our fundamental freedoms. The draft bill is not simply a consolidation of existing Commonwealth acts, as the government has claimed; it is a radical overhaul of anti-discrimination law. There are many problems with the draft bill. The most concerning aspect of the draft bill is the significant threat it poses to freedom of speech. The definition of discrimination has been expanded to include conduct that offends or insults. Given this new definition of discrimination, the inclusion of political opinion as a ground on which a claim can be made is absurd and dangerous. Under the draft bill, you could be taken to court for saying something that offended someone because of a political opinion they hold.

The freedom to express political opinions in all areas of public life, even those that offend and insult others, is central to the functioning of our system of government, as the High Court has found. By undermining the freedom of speech, the draft poses a grave threat to the health of Australian democracy. It is wrong to say that the draft bill could be amended to a point where it is acceptable. Simply removing the words ‘offend’ and ‘insult’ from the new definition of discrimination will not save the draft bill. The real problem is the whole project itself. The draft bill is not about antidiscrimination; instead, the consolidation project has resulted in a draft bill that undermines liberty and places the state at the centre of our interpersonal relationships. Rather than making the law clearer and simpler, the draft bill adds significant complexities to this area of law.

The draft bill also reverses the burden of proof for claims of discrimination. This is completely unacceptable. The person bringing a legal claim should always bear the burden of proving their case. This principle—the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty—is the centrepiece of a just legal system. Reversing the burden of proof creates an unjust system.

The draft bill will erode civil society by encouraging reliance on apparatus of the state for the resolution of private disputes. It threatens to lead Australia towards a US-style culture of litigation. The constant erosion of our freedoms must end. This draft bill is a disturbing example of the ever-increasing power of the state. It shows that it is now time to swing the pendulum back towards liberty rather than away from it and to take back control of our own lives. The draft bill is a threat to freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion. The Institute of Public Affairs calls on the committee to recommend the outright rejection of this dangerous draft bill.