Everyone's An Expert Online

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"Don’t worry, ma’am, we’re from the internet." So goes a line members of the hacktivist collective Anonymous are particularly fond of. But all of a sudden, everyone seems to be from the internet, and experts too: spooks, federal politicians and journalists, celebrities and sporting icons.

A host of issues have been converging in the minds and media strategies of the country’s chief politicians over the last month, cheered on and occasionally led by receptive news organisations. My old pal, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, snatched villain status from the jaws of her victory over big tobacco when she suddenly began championing the idea that everyone needed to be spied upon, all the time.

Data retention was never going to be an easy sell, but it is entirely possible Roxon did not realise what she was getting herself into. Data retention is already here, it just isn’t legally mandated. Many internet service providers routinely store records of their customers’ activity and that storage is a godsend for law enforcement when they come knocking with an official warrant, looking for incriminating evidence.

It’s just not consistent. Quite a few ISPs do not log activity, or fail to keep the logs for long, for reasons ranging from the altruistic to purely commercial — storing all that data costs money, as was pointed out yesterday by the very government agencies who asked for it to be stored in the first place.

It is highly possible that proponents of data retention within the federal Attorney-General’s Department presented their case to Roxon in a friendly "all we want is a consistent approach," style argument and she swallowed the hook, rod and reel.

Roxon has never maintained a set trajectory in her support of retention, at least to the public. Her position has ranged from "we’re consulting," through to "isn’t this a great idea". She even appeared on YouTube (comments disabled) to tell critics "you’ve misunderstood the policy". The flip-flopping is a bad look. Opponents of data retention have attacked the range of stances, criticising Roxon’s willingness to change her message depending on her audience.

And then last week the Murdoch press threw Roxon a life-line, or more accurately a wanted distraction, in the form of their self described "War on Trolls".

The Daily Telegraph’s campaign backfired in spectacular fashion. Troll victim and Rugby League hero Robbie Farah quickly outed himself as an online bully, signatures to the campaign numbered in the miserly hundreds (a quiet result online where even the mildest astroturfer can fake the support of thousands) and the targeted medium, Twitter, quickly rebelled in numbers, mostly with humour. But it can be assumed The Daily Telegraph was never really interested in a successful online campaign. Its readers largely don’t use Twitter, or the internet for that matter. The Daily Telegraph sought lurid headlines, increased circulation and website hits. It got them all.

In response to the campaign, Roxon and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy made the unusual move of siding with their erstwhile Murdoch frenemy and released a statement of support.

The link between trolls and data retention may seem tenuous, unless it is considered in the wider context of a crack-down on the internet; the internet is a dangerous place because nasty people use it and only government can step in and make it safe again.

It’s a tired old argument. Minister Conroy employed it frequently when championing Labor’s plans to "filter" (censor) the internet. Data retention is a very different beast to filtering, but both have a chilling effect on internet freedoms.

Child pornography is often invoked as the ultimate online boogie-man, used to justify arguments about stripping users of anonymity, retaining their data and the like. It is seemingly impossible to defend, but that didn’t stop Rick Falkvinge, founder of Sweden’s Pirate Party, from giving it a red-hot try this month when he advocated for it to be legalised.

I became personally caught up in the ensuing storm in a teacup as my old employer, the Canberra Times, decided there was enough of a link between Falkvinge and the Canberra-based chapter of the Pirate Party to run a front page story. Headline grabbing? Definitely. Good journalism? Debatable.

The Australian Pirate Party and its foreign cousins were taken by surprise as much as anyone. Falkvinge long ago left the movement and child pornography distribution is an abhorrent outcome of internet capabilities, one that Anonymous "members" regularly seek out and destroy. Julian Assange also leant technical expertise to law enforcement to attack the problem long before Wikileaks arrived on the scene.

I’m currently giving Pirate Party ACT media advice while simultaneously fighting a court battle against the Canberra Times. (The case will finally see the inside of a courtroom on November 5, a date that will make Anonymous chortle.)

One of the Daily Telegraph’s chief opponents in the "War on Trolls" was Fairfax Media. They correctly pointed out the hypocrisy of the Murdoch press, who promoted Farah’s complaints about being trolled even after his own online bullying was uncovered.

Fairfax Media also count journalists and surveillance-state watchdogs Dylan Welch and Phillip Dorling, and to a lesser extent Ben Grubb and Henrietta Cook, within their dwindling ranks.

Cook, a former colleague with a proven talent for ratings grabbing yarns, this week kicked off her own contribution to the fight for online freedom in the form of The Age’s online privacy campaign, complete with specialised email address, Twitter hashtag and Facebook reporting tool.

Cook and fellow journalist, Craig Butt, arguably chose a poor medium for their audience to report breaches of online privacy. Facebook has itself come under heavy fire for breaching the privacy of its users by tracking their online habits, even after they had logged out. Fairfax and News Ltd also dabble in more than a bit of data retention on behalf of their advertisers — tracking readers, willingly or not, via cookies, logins and IP addresses.

Which brings us full-circle. Why any politician thought a policy of logging everything its citizens do online and mandating the permanent "retention" of such data is a bit mind boggling. Australia’s first telephone appeared in 1876, but did not see common usage for another half a century. Not once was it suggested that every phone call should be bugged just in case someone committed a crime facilitated by telephony.

That the Attorney-General of Australia would think it is at all reasonable to record the online activity of every citizen of Australia speaks volumes. Roxon has flip-flopped on the policy since announced, but the mere act of suggesting it should be abhorrent to a liberal democracy.

Roxon’s most recent contribution to the debate can be read here — a diatribe on the difference between retaining "data" and "meta-data". It’s dry, boring and a little bit obnoxious. I highly recommend you skip it and watch Melbourne’s Juice Rap News instead.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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