Home > Metablogging > On the internet, nobody knows you’re an LWLB

On the internet, nobody knows you’re an LWLB

March 16th, 2005

Not surprisingly, a lot of bloggers are concerned about this report suggesting anyonymous blogging on political topics may be illegal. I had a few thoughts on this.

Closest to home, while I’m not anonymous[1], I welcome comments with or without anonymity. I don’t think there’s a problem here – any comments on this site are “authorised” by me, although I may not agree with them. As I’ve mentioned a few times, I reserve my right to delete or expurgate offensive comments, though there may be a delay for one reason or another.

Second, I don’t think it’s sensible to assume that the Internet is some kind of special free-fire zone where ordinary law does not apply. If a rule is right for print on paper, it’s probably right for text on a screen. If it’s wrong for the Internet, it’s probably wrong as applied to pamphlets.

Third, if a natural reading of the existing law is that it’s illegal to publish your political opinions under a pseudonym, the obvious question is: Why? I can’t see any possible justification for such a rule. It seems reasonable to prohibit dirty tricks like publishing something purporting to represent the views of your opponents, but the general tradition of writing as “Cicero” or “A modest member” is a well-established and honorable one. The idea that special rules are needed during election campaigns is an outdated relic, the kind of thing that used to give us a three-day blackout of electronic media.

Finally, where does Misha Schubert get off putting bloggers and spammers in the same headline? Maybe I should write something saying “state governments are considering uniform defamation laws, which would apply to journalists and spammers”.

fn1. That is, unless you believe the rumours that I’m really Imre Salusinszky posting under a false name and picture.

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  1. March 17th, 2005 at 03:12 | #1

    Firstly, his name is “Salusinszky”; secondly, it’s kinda funny that comments at this site announced Tim Lambert’s open-comment jihad then deleted remarks from J.F.Beck (I look forward to Lambert’s Quiggin mirror); thirdly, there are at least as many anonymous lefties as right-wingers.

    And fourthly: isn’t it interesting how lefty rage and spite has increased with improved prospects in the Middle East?

  2. John Quiggin
    March 17th, 2005 at 06:47 | #2

    1. Spelling error and bad link corrected. Apologies to Imre. As someone who gets mis-spelt a lot I know it’s annoying,

    2. As I’ve already advised JF Beck, the deletion of his comment was the result of overly aggressive anti-spam software. I’ve been trying to fix this problem for some time, but without much success so far.

    3. Both the headline and the footnote were meant as mild jokes, not aimed at offending anybody, However, since you’re offended, I’ve changed “RWDB” to “LWLB” (Left-wing Love Beast). As for the body of the column, there’s nothing about political affilation and the only person I criticise is Misha Schubert about whose political views I know nothing,

    4. Given the bad-tempered way you’ve responded to a post with no party-political content at all, I’d say lefties still have a large deficit in rage and spite.

    Rereading all the above, I think you’ve somehow interpreted the whole post as some sort of attack on the comments policy on your site – the broken link maybe contributed to this. If so, it’s a total misunderstanding: the post is about the application of electoral laws to ban anonymous blogging.

  3. March 17th, 2005 at 08:12 | #3

    Shucks. I think tim’s missing me.

  4. Paul Norton
    March 17th, 2005 at 08:30 | #4

    Mischa Schubert is a former National Women’s Officer with the National Union of Students who was seen as something of a threat by the Labor factions, and was a delegate to the 1998 Constitutional Convention on one of the non-ARM republican tickets. On the basis of this information and some of her opinion pieces it can validly be inferred that she’s a lefty of the non-party variety.

  5. Tony Healy
    March 17th, 2005 at 08:46 | #5

    Also, it’s irrelevant to associate Schubert as a journalist with the headline. In professional media, specialist sub-editors choose the headlines.

  6. Charles Bawdy-Lair
    March 17th, 2005 at 08:54 | #6

    why hasn’t little timmy said anything about this policy, anyway?
    ps tony healy is right – sub-editors usually impose their own lame headlines on a piece regardless of how clever the suggestions you give for the pieces you submit

  7. March 17th, 2005 at 08:58 | #7

    isn’t it interesting how lefty rage and spite has increased with improved prospects in the Middle East?

    I mean, what do you say? When so obviously it’s the result of the moon moving into Aries?

  8. Homer Paxton
    March 17th, 2005 at 09:07 | #8

    I have never understood why a person does not put down their real name when making comments.

    I do note a strong correlation between that and the amount of abuse written though.

  9. Ros
    March 17th, 2005 at 09:50 | #9

    John you are probably aware of the NSW Society for Computers and the Law, and their online journal and their Sep 2004 Issue 57 article by Richard Potter on Flamers Trolls and Bloggers and liabilities of ISPs and ICHs. If not link if you are interested and a practise at linking for me.
    Potter-innocent dissemination risk
    Wondered about the risks for bloggers who aren’t anonymous.

  10. Katz
    March 17th, 2005 at 09:57 | #10

    “Special Minister of State Eric Abetz told The Age that the move would ensure internet publishers were bound by the same rules as television, radio and print.”

    But the internet very different from television, radio and print.

    1. It’s global. Local laws can’t touch foreign-based sites. Determined libellers can set up without risk in many parts of the world.

    2. It’s seamless. National boundaries are meaningless, unless a government desires to cripple the entire system at entry points to its jurisdiction.

    3. Only end-use consumers are available for prosecution. The kiddie porn industry is the model here. That material emanates from permissive jurisdictions elsewhere.

    4. It’s interractive in real time.

    The best that regulators can hope for is that administrators of sites perceive that their interests are best served by keeping content within bounds. If local regulators squeeze these administrators too hard, then scope exists for sites to move or to start up off-shore. There is an appetite for on-line commentary that can oly be stimulated by ill-considered persecution.

  11. March 17th, 2005 at 11:04 | #11

    Apart from the rights/wrongs of free speech etc., publishing too many personal details, particularly your name and street address (as req’d by the electoral law, not a po box) on the net when you are not a public figure, is not recommended from personal experience.

    I was a victim of a net stalker a couple of years back – he was even able to tell me what school my kids went to. Not something I would want to go through again.

  12. Ros
    March 17th, 2005 at 11:08 | #12

    Katz do you have a view on the ACCC v Chen. The court granted declaratory relief and an injunction against a foriegner who registered and operated misleading websites outside Australia, on the following
    “the public needs to be protected from cross-border consumer fraud or deception;
    it is in the public’s interest for the court to indicate its disapproval of the conduct and to take all available measures to prevent misleading or deceptive conduct; and
    granting a declaration will increase the likelihood of foreign regulatory authorities co-operating in taking action to protect Australian consumers from cross-border fraud.”
    This was fraud and it does seem a bit hopeful that foreign regulatory authorities would necesaarily co-operate.
    This quote from the Internet Society is it seems very much in agreement with your contentions re the difference of the internet.
    “In general, these anomalies have arisen because legislators understood the Internet only in terms of existing media such as video or television and did not recognise that its implementation and the control of end-users over its technology is very different from any previous model of telecommunication service. ”
    However they do seem to partly agree with Abetz is right re Internet Content Hosts
    ‘The legislation on ICHs refers to hosting content within Australia, and seeks to bring it under the same controls as TV and video classification. In general, most people would agree that content hosted within this country should be under legislative control like any other content so long as this is consistent with the requirements of our society, although questions remain about whether these are the most appropriate classifications”
    I am assuming that John and other bloggers are ICHs.
    Internet Society ISP ICH

  13. Katz
    March 17th, 2005 at 13:03 | #13

    Thanks for the reference to this case Ros.

    Some comments.

    1. It is one thing to issue injunctions. As you hint, it’s quite a different thing to have them executed.

    2. It’s in everyone’s interests to stamp out fraud. The principle of free speech never extended to fraud.

    3. The critical phrase in the ICS statement is “hosted in this country”. The reality of seamlessness suggests that this qualification has very little practical effect.

  14. March 17th, 2005 at 13:03 | #14

    Agree 100% with JQ’s point that neither political speech, nor speech delivered over the internet, should be except from the standards and regulations governing speech in all forms.

    Katz: I think you’re forgetting that television, radio and print (to a degree) are all available over the internet today. I don’t see how using one means of distribution over another should affect the legality of the content. Surely the content is either legal or not, regardless of how it gets to you.

    Agree also with Ron, in fact I recently posted an explaination of my own reasons for maintaining anonymity on the internet.

  15. March 17th, 2005 at 14:22 | #15

    Very interesting thread… especially since in Oz there is no “Bill of Rights”, or protected rights to free speech,etc. other than our actual HISTORY and their traces in common law.

    But we all know how safe those are…. NOT!

    It might have something to do with the name change for the NSW Police Service, by then police minister Costa, to NSW Police Force.

    I wonder if the bottom of this slippery slope lies somewhere close to the banned Iranian Bloggers…

  16. Alastair (via John Quiggin)
    March 17th, 2005 at 14:29 | #16

    Agree 100% with JQ’s point that neither political speech, nor speech delivered over the internet, should be except from the standards and regulations governing speech in all forms.

    Katz: I think you’re forgetting that television, radio and print (to a degree) are
    all available over the internet today. I don’t see how using one means of
    distribution over another should affect the legality of the content. Surely
    the content is either legal or not, regardless of how it gets to you.

    Agree also with Ron, in fact I recently posted an explaination of my own reasons for
    maintaining anonymity on the internet.

  17. numbat
    March 17th, 2005 at 14:43 | #17

    ONLY illegal if you are anti-howard that makes one un-Australian. Howard instigated this and this man(used in a generic sense only)uses tax money to advertise his government. This man stacks every board imaginable, this man bribes electors, this man looks after his mates – family and friends.This man got hold of phone numbers and sent unwanted and unasked political messages to them during the last election. This man is not trusted by the bulk of the Australian electorate. A man with these credentuals wants to ban bloggers. The mind boggles really. regards, numbat
    If howard wants my name for his black list – R. Patterson, Qld. 4272

  18. grace pettigrew
    March 17th, 2005 at 15:01 | #18

    Abetz claims that regulating political speech on the internet would merely bring it into line with radio and television, where anonymity is not permitted.

    What bullshit. Listen to radio talk-back and hear every day the ripest of political commentary without any identification of callers.

    John, Abetz is only interested in minimising criticism of the government on the internet because it is getting a bit hectic and they are feeling the heat. This has nothing to do with bringing the net into line with other media as a matter of consistency in law.

    See Abetz propose legislation to require talk-back callers to identify themselves on air, perhaps exposing many of them as paid-up members of the Liberal Party? That’ll be the day!

  19. Katz
    March 17th, 2005 at 15:12 | #19

    Alistair (via JQ). Not for the first time in recent days we witness the conflation of analysis and prescription. What should be and what may be are two entirely different things.

    Yes, TV and radio can be delivered over the internet. But if anything objectionable is broadcast or is transmitted by cable, the publisher can be punished, the TV broadcasting licence revoked, etc. I’d like to see the Australian Government try doing that to an obnoxious website (e.g., howards-shaven-gerbils.com) hosted in (say) Brazil.

  20. roberto
    March 17th, 2005 at 15:27 | #20

    So Katz, ultimately you are saying because of the nature of the internet as a medium, views however expressed are not/cannot be subject to any form of direct and accountable attribution?

  21. Katz
    March 17th, 2005 at 15:34 | #21

    Roberto, “ultimately” is a long time and a long way. But, in the case of the internet, as it is currently constructed, in the end the cost of pursuit will always be much higher than the cost of avoidance or evasion.

  22. March 17th, 2005 at 16:21 | #22

    “LWLB” is just sick making. We could use a few more BBBTs, though (Bug Blatter Beasts of Traal).

  23. March 17th, 2005 at 16:32 | #23

    I agree, Katz.

    But that is not necessarily good. As the risk of being caught is very low, that means that the penalty of being caught would have to be set very high so as to have a deterrent effect. So, to implement a policy of political blogging accountability, they would have to just have to make an example of a few bloggers, and then, assuming the rest of us are risk averse, we would be deterred from plog-ing anonymously.

  24. Razor
    March 17th, 2005 at 19:01 | #24

    Dear Homer,

    You commented: “I have never understood why a person does not put down their real name when making comments.

    I do note a strong correlation between that and the amount of abuse written though.”

    I don’t know about anyone else but I have a business and my clients coem from all shades of the political spectrum. I have no desire to either lose or miss out on business because somebody doesn’t like my politics, therefore I prefer for my personal view point to remain anon.

    For me, it is a business decision.


  25. Homer Paxton
    March 17th, 2005 at 19:54 | #25

    I respect that although disagreeing with it.

    Let me tell you I couldn’t care less what politics a financial planner has, all I would be interested in is whether he actually knows what he is on about but I am probably the eception to the rule.

  26. Alastair (via John Quiggin)
    March 17th, 2005 at 20:17 | #26

    Tony H. you’re right about headlines, but the same pairing is in Schubert’s lead sentence.

  27. March 17th, 2005 at 20:32 | #27

    Now that I can get past JQ’s commentspam protection, I’d just like to point out just for the record that the above comment #25 referring to Tony H was not from me. The the previous one (#15) was.

  28. March 17th, 2005 at 20:55 | #28

    Katz, I am not confused (or at least I don’t think I am) about what is and what should be the case. I intended to focus on the latter.

    For example, Fairfax should be (and to the best of my knowledge, is) subject to various laws and regulations regardless whether their content arrives rolled up on your front lawn, or in your browser.

    Turning the argument around, it is not acceptable to deliberately introduce an internet-based component into an otherwise everyday transaction in order to circumvent laws and regulations.

    For example, internet sales in the US are free of sales tax. But you can’t walk into a store, “order” an item from the company website, then pick it up from the shelf next to you and walk away saving the 6%. This is how it should be IMHO.

    By the same token I don’t believe our glorious broadcasters should be able to rid themselves of the many rules and regulations that govern them simply by inserting a TCP/IP transport layer between them and their set-top boxes.

  29. kartiya
    March 17th, 2005 at 22:40 | #29

    So, yet another howard government black armband contribution for Australia,and why not a bit of Lightfoot style parlimentary priveledge for us the net[e]scapers !

  30. kyangadac
    March 18th, 2005 at 02:19 | #30

    The web is to cable television as the mail is to the newspaper. The majority of the web’s communication is mail based. So issues of defamation, political content etc depend upon whom you are mailing to. If I write a libel about John Howard in a letter that is not the same as publishing it in a newspaper even if the letter is mailed on a web server to other members of the “Slander the Rich Society”. If the “Slander the Rich Society” publishes the letter on a publically available web site then they are libellous. The critical issue is the definition of public and private – i can join ‘slander the rich’ by logging into their web site. Or conversly, the ‘slander the rich’ web site, is so poorly maintained and changes isp all the time, that it’s log counter has recorded only a few hundred hits prior to the libel writ arriving. Has anything been published if it hasn’t been read? does a tree fall…

    Because the web is a mail service the effective means of policing its content is by similar laws as those that apply to mail. Practical censorship(!) is then more about blocking delivery (e.g. the Chinese model) or monitoring mail for offensive material(anti- child porn operations). The point abut the net is that while it makes overseas access far easier it doesn’t remove the onus on the user. The critical issue here is that while a supplier may be anonymous a user’s footprint is faithfully recorded by their ISP. The use and misuse of this record is perhaps the fundamental issue of civil liberies here. When that nice well paid job comes up in Foreign Affairs ask yourself – does ASIO have a record from my ISP of how many times I’ve read JQ’s blog this week, will they hold it against me?? …They probably will you know.

  31. John Quiggin
    March 18th, 2005 at 07:13 | #31

    Sorry about the misidentification Alastair. The response to Tony H was from me

  32. March 18th, 2005 at 10:15 | #32

    Um, I know this is off-topic, but who on earth thinks that “prospects in the Middle East” are improving? (as asserted in first comment). Certainly not any self-respecting lefty 😉

  33. Katz
    March 18th, 2005 at 10:59 | #33

    Alistair, your words “should be” (three times) and “not acceptable” sound more like prescription than analysis to me.

    Some information which may help you to refine your position:

    In my copy of the “Age” I read that the publication is “Registered as a Newpaper at the British Post Office.” Unless a newspaper carries this registration it is illegal to send it through the mail. This is a check on free comment and a means to prohibit transmission.

    Here is a brief discussion of the relevant legislation:

    ‘By the English ” Newspaper Libel and Registration Act ” of 1881 it is defined as ” any paper containing public news, intelligence or occurrences, or any remarks or observations therein printed for sale, and published periodically or in parts or numbers at intervals not exceeding twenty-six days “; and the British Post Office defines a newspaper as ” any publication “to summarize the wording” printed and published in numbers at intervals of not more than seven days, consisting wholly or in part of political or other news, or of articles relating thereto or to other current topics, with or without advertisements.”‘

    So, you can see that publishers of the “Age” and presumably every other newspaper face the threat of having their registration revoked if they step out of line.

    This state of affairs does not exist for web-sites, blogs, plogs etc. There is no registration process.

    So, if for instance the publishers of the “Age” decided that they wished to forego the right to transmit their paper through the mails, and indeed to cease to publish a hard-copy edition, the paper would cease to be subject to the penalties embodied in this Registration Act.

    And, moreover, if the publishers of the “Age” decided to move their assets off-shore to some jurisdiction with minimal legal co-operation with Australian authorities, the publication would be free of many restraints as a free agent in the TCP/IP universe.

  34. March 19th, 2005 at 06:59 | #34

    Katz, I’m glad my previous comment sounded like prescription – that was my intent.

    I argue that the law should be technology neutral. The act of publishing contains with it certain rights and obligations and as far as possible these should be independent of the technology used. I don’t have any specific view on what these rights and obligations should be (or are currently), but I believe they should be applied consistently.

    In addition the determination of jurisdiction should be such that it cannot be circumvented by relocating certain parts of the publishing process to other jurisdictions. I believe this to be the case for traditional publishers – Fairfax cannot circumvent their newspaper obligations simply by using a printing press in China. Furthermore, they are still an Australian newspaper because the act of publishing is defined to be within Australia. I contend that the same principles should apply to the act of publishing on the internet.

    I have no qualms with your analysis of the current legal obligations of newspapers, and how these no longer apply in cyberspace. I just think this is an obvious inconsistency and hence undesirable.

  35. March 19th, 2005 at 09:34 | #35

    The future fruits of the web is in our fingers. What kind of fruits will we leave for the next generation to swallow. Let us not get some party apparatchiks to dictate who we can or cannot offend… Let us think outside the square – I feel it in my bones that this proposal will deliver a thoughtful harvest:

    Now is the time for all good men & women to come to the aid of their Blogosphere Experiment in Democracy

    Clouds over Democracy Start to lift
    We the Bloggers, in order to form a more perfect Blogosphere, hold these truths to be self-evident: Free Thought and Free Speech are the cornerstones of Free Societies and Free People
    Why a Blogosphere Democracy? Throughout our history, high-minded tools and actions have often been slandered and oppressed by those who wouldn’t benefit from them–to mention a few: Science, Religion, Arts, Philosophy and specifically the study of Rhetoric which has never recovered, the Printing Press, Democracy, etc., etc., etc. To that end, the following proposition is a mere outline to establish an inclusive organized system to benefit the overall Blogosphere; all constitutional decisions should be clarified and ratified by the Foundation Board, Elected Congress Members, and engaged Bloggers (see below). Issues of concern to the Blogosphere can be addressed in this system as determined by the Members of the Board and Congress; likewise, individual Bloggers can appeal to their representative for action. The Blogosphere Democracy, in the hands of the Foundation Board and Congress of Bloggers, can achieve a democratic voice (Congress), support (Foundation), unity (Union), and advances (Guild) for the Blogosphere while finding methods of defending (Bureau) it.

    Out of Many

  36. Ros
    March 20th, 2005 at 09:59 | #36

    Bit late but were the rest of you aware of the fight lining up in US re this issue
    Smith should know. He’s one of the six commissioners at the Federal Election Commission, which is beginning the perilous process of extending a controversial 2002 campaign finance law to the Internet.

    In 2002, the FEC exempted the Internet by a 4-2 vote, but U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly last fall overturned that decision. “The commission’s exclusion of Internet communications from the coordinated communications regulation severely undermines” the campaign finance law’s purposes, Kollar-Kotelly wrote.

    Smith and the other two Republican commissioners wanted to appeal the Internet-related sections. But because they couldn’t get the three Democrats to go along with them, what Smith describes as a “bizarre” regulatory process now is under way.
    eg links to campaign sites using campaign material in blog or linking to favourite politician

    Coming crackdown blogging

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