Rann’s sledgehammer too big for online nuts
UPDATE 11.55pm: SA Attorney General Mick Atkinson has backed down and will repeal the ban on anonymous internet comments.
It is self-evident that websites can be used by imposters and small-time fraudsters to create a false reflection of public opinion on political issues. But there’s no excuse for the South Australian government’s breathtaking censorship tactics ahead of the state election.
Sure, anonymous comments are a problem. There’s a guy posting on the Punch lately who has assumed 21 different identities in four days. He first came on the radar at the weekend after he left a tell-tail trail by posting two similar comments in quick succession. He could have been immediately banned but was given rope.
On a single thread he posted under the names Ronnel, James, Wendy, Rachel, Brad, Jan, Bill, Roger, Janette, Francis, Annie, Randall, Brendon, Judith and Connie. Though I’ve never met him I have an unusually clear picture of what he looks like, which is as follows.
He’s bald, wears socks with sandals and lives with his mum. He surfs the internet from his bedroom, where on the wall is a pennant hung on an angle commemorating North Melbourne’s 1975 Grand Final win. He eats tinned asparagus and has a haphazard collection of Star Wars action figures in which the prize item is a Millennium Falcon but its radar dish broke off years ago.
His way of operating is simple: he invents a name and fakes an email address, writes a short line of text expressing his dismay at environment science scandals and then links to a climate-sceptic blog.
Just speculating here, taking a wild guess, but how’s this for a theory: his intent is to give the appearance of elevated public alarm at climate change science, hoping if more people see scepticism expressed they too will come around to this view.
Now while we might be on to Roger-Judith-Brendon-Annie you can safely assume that he’s not the only person out there who makes multiple comments on websites under assumed identities.
(Oh, and the reason know it’s the same person: all the activity is from the same IP address.)
But while this Brad-Bill-Janette is an extreme example, he’s the type of person the South Australian government is worried about with its new laws requiring a name and postcode for every person leaving comments on online forums during the forthcoming state election campaign.
Like it or not, the ability to remain anonymous when expressing views on the internet is one of the things that makes it a force for democracy. It allows the free exchange of honestly-held opinions by real people without fear of reprisal by their employers, government services, or anyone else.
Now sure, there are malicious troglodytes engaging in political guerrilla warfare on websites. On The Punch we would prefer if everyone commented under their own names.
But an article just yesterday by journalist Zoe Taylor about her tragic experiences with repeated miscarriages drew a range of responses from women who had similar stories to tell but had been suffering alone. Should we be asking them to supply full names and postcodes?
Every day on The Punch we have contributions from a range of informed, connected, articulate members of The Punch who share their often brilliant thoughts and opinions on issues daily under assumed identities because their jobs would be at risk if this were not the case.
Laughably South Australia’s Attorney-General Michael Atkinson tries to claim that the new laws don’t impinge on freedom of speech.
“The AdelaideNow website is not just a sewer of criminal defamation, it is a sewer of identity theft and fraud,” Mr Atkinson said.
The most derisory thing about this statement is the assumption that somehow if people are stopped from sharing their opinions, they will cease to have them in the first place.
If CentralDistrictsFan67 is sharing an opinion on AdelaideNow, it’s a good bet he’s sharing it with people down in the pub too.
In the modern age politicians have no option but to get used to listening to statements that used to be only whispered behind their backs.
There’s a sad irony in Atkinson’s actions, given he is a former journalist with the Adelaide Advertiser and a long-standing critic of apologists for communist regimes who used censorship to suffocate dissent.
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