ANDREW DOWDELL and MICHAEL MCGUIRE
From: The Advertiser
February 02, 2010

SOUTH Australian laws censoring anonymous political comment on the internet have sparked national and international outrage, with readers comparing the "draconian laws'' to those in Nazi Germany and China.

Well over 1000 people had posted comments on the AdelaideNow website up to midnight last night - most vehemently against the Rann Government's legislation which will force internet bloggers and anyone publishing a comment on next month's state election to supply their real name and postcode.

A poll reveals more than 90 percent of readers are against the laws, which carry a maximum fine of $5,000 for media organisations who do not hand over such information to the Electoral Commissioner.

In an extraordinary response to the story, readers have compared the law to those used in Nazi Germany, China, George Orwell's 1984 and North Korea, including Mark Burns Springer from the United States.


"WOW I thought Australia was better than this! Sounds more like Red China or North Korea than Australia. What the devil are you folks doing over there?'' Mr Springer wrote.

Aussie Expat of Hong Kong wrote on news.com that the law was a disgrace.

"Internet censorship - you always think of China! Not Australia. This is a disgrace. Well done SA...NOT (or will this comment be censored too???),'' they wrote.

Daniel of Stepney wrote: "I thought there was a world war to eliminate Nazism, yet this government has proven Nazism is alive and well at North Tce.''

We received so many comments on this story we busted our brand-new comment engine! Read the 1000-odd comments below and continue the debate here

After the furious reader response, Mr Atkinson backflipped and vowed to repeal the censorship law

Attorney-General Michael Atkinson said the law would not impinge on free speech and claimed that he expected The Advertiser and AdelaideNow to "publish false stories about me, invent things about me to punish me''.

Mr Atkinson described AdelaideNow as "not just a sewer of criminal defamation'' but also "a sewer of identity theft and fraud''.

In a press conference today, Mr Atkinson said the law was "all about honesty''.

He conceded it would be difficult to police but the most "egregious and outrageous'' breaches of the new laws would be identified.

Michael Lewis of Malvern wrote that Premier Mike Rann and Mr Atkinson should "hang their heads in shame'', adding that "Don Dunstan must be spinning in his grave''.

The state Liberal Party - which supported the law - also drew fire from readers.

"The fact that the Libs supported this garbage is a reminder about where they're at. Alternative government is meant to have an alternative,'' Ray of Old Cheltenham Town wrote.

Others, such as Rick Carter of Adelaide, ridiculed the laws and said there was no way they could be used to crack down on comments on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

"Perhaps the snoozers on North Tce should look at how Obama raised $500mil for his campaign from 3 million people and mobilised a nation using Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, YouTube etc,'' Mr Carter wrote.

He said Mr Atkinson and the Rann Government were missing out on an opportunity by muzzling debate.

"So now instead of working out how social media can be used they want to do their best to ban it ... Mick Atkinson is not serious is he?''

Other readers labelled the law as "BS'' and "ridiculous'', arguing there was no way it could be properly enforced.

"There is a really complex way to get around this issue shhhhhh (don't tell anyone) use someone else's name, use a fake name and a postcode,'' wrote John Smith of John Smith Adelaide.

"It's BS legislation with no force or effect, and yet again shows a complete inability of our leaders to get their heads around the realities of the internet,'' Dylan wrote.

However, a minority of readers said they agreed with the law changes.

"This is not censoring free speech. I am not afraid to say what I think or feel or put my name to it and the Advertiser's fear campaign/beat up is just a bunch of rubbish,'' wrote Lucy of 5052.

Daily Cliche of What Have You Been Told To Think Today also agreed with the law - enforced during the election campaign - arguing it was "beneficial to democracy''.

"It will make things temporarily more transparent and lord forbid may even make people think twice about how responsible they might be rather than getting on line and doing the usual the-govt-is-to-blame-for-everything rant that this paper solicits,'' they wrote.

At 3pm, 90 per cent of 1285 readers had voted against the law in an AdelaideNow poll.

Post your real name - or else

The new law, which came into force on January 6, requires internet bloggers, and anyone making a comment on next month's state election, to publish their real name and postcode when commenting on the poll.

The law will affect anyone posting a comment on an election story on The Advertiser's AdelaideNow website, as well as other news sites such as The Punch, the ABC's The Drum and Fairfax newspapers' National Times site.

It also appears to apply to election comment made on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The law, which was pushed through last year as part of a raft of amendments to the Electoral Act and supported by the Liberal Party, also requires media organisations to keep a person's real name and full address on file for six months, and they face fines of $5000 if they do not hand over this information to the Electoral Commissioner.

The Right to Know Coalition, made up of Australia's major media outlets including News Limited, publisher of The Advertiser , has called the new laws "draconian".

"This is one of the most troubling erosions of the right to free speech in Australia for many years," Right to Know spokeswoman Creina Chapman said.

THE ADVERTISER EDTIORIAL: CENSORING FREE SPEECH IN THE SECRET STATE

"It is a fundamental principle of our democracy that voters are able to express personal views about the competing claims of political candidates without the fear that they might end up on a hit list held by a government whose policies they may have opposed.

"Isn't the whole point of public debate that it is public and that Australians, including South Australians, are smart enough to read or listen to the views of others and make up their own minds?"

Ms Chapman also pointed out that newspaper blogs such as AdelaideNow were moderated and publishers and broadcasters took responsibility for the material they published.

Mr Atkinson said yesterday he expected The Advertiser to target him for sponsoring the law. "I am also certain that Advertiser Newspapers and News Limited will punish me personally, viciously for being the attorney-general responsible for this law," he said.

"You will publish false stories about me, invent things about me to punish me."

The Advertiser's editor, Melvin Mansell, said: "Clearly this is censorship being implemented by a government facing an election.

"The effect of that is that many South Australians are going to be robbed of their right of freedom of speech during this election campaign.

"The sad part is that this widespread suppression is supported by the Opposition.

"Neither of these parties are representing the people for whom they have been elected to govern."

While Tasmania has similar provisions, it is believed the SA law is the most heavy-handed in Australia.

The SA law also differs from federal legislation, which preserves the right of internet users to blog under a pseudonym.

The new legislation could also apply to talkback radio.

The law will apply as soon as the writs for the March 20 election are issued. The writs for the election can be issued any time between now and 25 days before the election. The law will then lapse at 6pm on polling day.

Mt Atkinson said there was no intention to broaden the law to take it beyond the period of elections.

Similar laws have been in use in South Korea for some time and China also introduced a similar requirement last year.

Opposition justice spokeswoman Vickie Chapman said yesterday while the Liberal Party had supported the amendment to the Electoral Act, she believed it would be too broad to implement if it included Facebook and Twitter and said Mr Atkinson should introduce a regulation to limit its scope.

"It is clearly not the intention of what we understood that to be," she said.

Australian Council for Civil Liberties president Terry O'Gorman predicted the new laws would have a "chilling" effect on free speech and said South Australia was building a reputation as a secretive state.

"Freedom of speech is generally not high on the agenda for (the South Australian Government) in any given 12-month period."

John Quiggin, a long-time blogger and Research Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland, doubted whether the laws were enforceable.

"They can pass as draconian law as they like, but without the capacity to impose their own internet censorship it's going to be a dead lemon," he said.

"Anyone who wants to can set up an anonymous blog.

"It will be totally ineffectual with someone who sets up a Wordpress blog post in the US under a false name and publish whatever they want."