Roxon conflates cyber-bullies, protests, data retention


news Nicola Roxon has publicly linked the religious protests held in Sydney last week over a YouTube video and the issue of cyber-bullying to the Federal Government’s wide-ranging packaging of surveillance and data retention measures, in what the Federal Attorney-General stated was “a lot of different trends coming together”.

It has been a furious several months for those who follow Australia’s ongoing political debate on how the Internet should be regulated, monitored and controlled down under.

Firstly, the Federal Attorney-General’s Department is currently promulgating a package of reforms which would see a number of wide-ranging changes made to make it easier for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to monitor what Australians are doing on the Internet. For example, one new power is a data retention protocol which would require ISPs to retain data on their customers’ Internet and telephone activities for up to two years, and changes which would empower agencies to source data on users’ activities on social networking sites. Another power would see it made illegal for Australians to refuse to decrypt their data, and warrants are also to be simplified and streamlined.

Secondly, following several high-profile verbal attacks on celebrities through social networking sites such as Twitter, a number of major media outlets such as the Daily Telegraph and politicians such as Roxon, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell have sparked a public campaign calling for co-called ‘cyber-bullies’ to be reined in, and for the social networking sites to cooperate more fully with local law enforcement authorities.

Lastly, last week a video posted on YouTube ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed of the Islamic religious tradition sparked a wave of global protests — including in Australia — by Muslims who saw the material as being offensive. Some politicians, such as Conroy, have called for YouTube to take the video down, but YouTube owner Google has declined to do so, stating that the content was within its guidelines.

Previously, these issues have been perceived to be relatively distinct from each other, with the surveillance and data retention proposal dating back several years, and the recent social media controversies being a very recent phenomenon. However, in an interview on ABC Radio National last week (the full audio is available here), Roxon appeared to make a link between them. “I do think there are a lot of different trends coming together here,” said Roxon. “I want to make sure our law enforcement agencies have the powers that they need and can keep up with the new technology.”

Asked whether the issue of social media and text messages was too big an issue for the Government to tackle, Roxon said: “Well, it’s a big challenge if they’re expected to monitor and instigate an inquiry all the time. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a bigger challenge than before, where that evidence is provided. And, of course, with cyber bullying, you often have a victim who comes forward with that information.”

“And funnily enough, this is, sort of, one of the proposals that is before one of our parliamentary committees at the moment,” the Attorney-General added, “and has been, you know, passionately argued against by those who think that everything that happens on the internet or in the social media should be free from any government interference.”

“Well, in fact, we want our law enforcement agencies to be able to use different forms of communications if that helps them put together a case against someone who’s been involved in a violent protest and committed a crime. But I want people to rest assured that if they’re using the social media, you know, to keep in contact with their friends and at their work and to do all the things that are causing no harm to any of the community, they shouldn’t have their privacy unnecessarily breached by any of the proposals that we are looking at.”

“There is, I think, a growing trend that police are concerned about, how quickly information can get out through social media and Twitter. And of course you can be charged with offences that already exist under our criminal laws if you are using communication in a way which could breach those criminal laws. I guess what is the point that’s being made here is we can look at that information, where we have access to it. We can use information that’s available to see whether that actually shows somebody’s been involved in inciting violence and potentially breaching our criminal laws because of it.”

Some commentators, such as digital rights campaigner Geordie Guy, have speculated in recent weeks that the Government would seek to link the controversy over so-called social media “trolls” to help gain momentum for its unpopular new surveillance and data retention laws, arguing that the social media issue would provide a community outcry on an issue that would allow the Government to show its data retention and Internet surveillance proposal was needed.

“The “troll problem” is a gift-wrapped non-problem that the media has seized on and caused the waves to part between the government and a sweeping range of new police powers,” wrote Guy last week. “The Prime Minister meeting [rugby player] Robbie Farah, the Communications Minister unleashing a spray on talkback radio about how Twitter won’t co-operate unless warrants or orders are produced, this is all reversing the momentum against the power grab. “But we can’t catch terrorists” wasn’t working so now the conversation is “but we can’t catch mean people”.

In general, the Government’s data retention and surveillance package has attracted a significant degree of criticism from the wider community over the past few months since it was first mooted. Digital rights lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia has described the new powers as being akin to those applied in restrictive countries such as China and Iran, while the Greens have described the package as “a systematic erosion of privacy”.

In separate submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security inquiry into the reforms, a number of major telecommunications companies including iiNet and Macquarie Telecom, as well as telco and ISP representative industry groups, have expressed sharp concern over aspects of the reform package, stating that “insufficient evidence” had been presented to justify them. And Victoria’s Acting Privacy Commissioner has labelled some of the included reforms as “being characteristic of a police state”.

The Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative and free market-focused think tank, wrote in its submission to the parliamentary inquiry on the matter that many of the proposals of the Government were “unnecessary and excessive. “The proposal … is onerous and represents a significant incursion on the civil liberties of all Australians,” wrote the IPA in its submission, arguing that the data retention policy should be “rejected outright”. And one Liberal backbencher, Steve Ciobo, has described the new proposal as being akin to “Gestapo” tactics.

In addition, yesterday The Australian newspaper reported that about a dozen Coalition MPs had bitterly complained about the data retention proposals in a passionate party room meeting, with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott being urged to directly pressure the Government on the issue.

On the issue of cyber-bullying, commentators such as Rosemary Purcell, an Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne, have pointed out that current research shows the issue is not a substantial one, and could already be addressing through existing law. “Most Australian states and territories have laws that could be used as a legal remedy to address these forms of online abuse,” Purcell wrote on The Conversation last week.

Wow. Geordie Guy had better buy himself a few Lotto tickets (and sign me up for some as well), because the prediction of the former Electronic Frontiers Australia activist that the Government would attempt to use the cyber-trolling issue as a stimulus for its data retention and surveillance package already seems to be coming true.

Personally, I am simply flabbergasted at the fact that our Federal Attorney-General has publicly linked a bunch of proposed data retention and Internet surveillance laws to a public protest, not to mention social media cyber-bullying. These are laws which, Australians have been told repeatedly, were being brought in to deal with serious offences such as terrorism or high-level crime. And yet, all it took was a few offence tweets on Twitter, plus a somewhat unruly protest by people offended by a YouTube video, and already we’re talking about sharing information between law enforcement agencies and linking data retention to the protestors and cyber-bullies.

Frankly, if this isn’t scope creep, then I don’t know what is. And if this doesn’t demonstrate the potential for data retention and Internet surveillance powers to be abused by law enforcement agencies and become political tools as well, then I don’t know what does. It is just not ‘OK’ that Australia’s Attorney-General has conflated these three separate issues together, and I encourage those out there who are similarly concerned to speak up about this issue in public.

Image credit: Office of Nicola Roxon


  1. The Human Rights Commission also claims it values anti-racism over freedom of expression (Bolt, Encyclopedia Dramatica etc.):

    “The demonstrations raise broader concerns about the use of social media, and how we balance the competing interests of a fast moving internet and social media industry, and the rights of people to freedom of expression, freedom of opinion and freedom from vilification and hatred.

    We need a greater accountability by host providers to manage offensive material or indeed material that is going to incite hatred and violence across the world.”

    • I fall firmly into the ‘your right to swing your arms around freely ends 1mm from my face’ camp of philosophy on this sort of issue.
      But at the same time, when people talk anti-racism, anti-bullying, etc.. vs freedom of expression… I value the right to attempt expression of some kind without fear more. I would rather the person exercise their right to swing their arms round freely, and incidentally get hit if they swirled round foolishly, then dispute and resolve things civilly afterwards, than have everyone fitted for a strait jacket.

      Its a shame people dont get the nuances of this argument right most of the time. You should have the right to many things, such as free speech, privacy, etc. But at the same time, you should be liable for the consequences of your actions. However the implementation of law regarding these consequences should not seek to restrict your free choice to transgress, merely deal with your punishment.

      “Locks are for honest people” … If you want to be a racist, no amount of anti racism laws will stop you, and all the onerous thoughtcrime nonsense only further corrupts the society we live in as humans, from the society we espouse to live in as humans.

  2. If everything you do online is recorded then clearly law enforcement won’t need to contact twitter, it’s vital this is done to prevent the horrible crime of people being mean to celebrities

  3. I got no problem with them doing data retention if they get it cleared by a judge/court of law first, but what they want to do with this so far is basically treat every one as a criminal.

    Next step (and it’d be an easy one these days) would be to data mine what they have retained, and god knows where that will lead…

    • or how about in the US the shop Target knows when you are pregnant based on buying patterns.

      • Tinman_au did say “I got no problem with them doing data retention ->if they get it cleared by a judge/court of law first<-"
        if they get it cleared by a judge/court of law first so I'm guessing we're on the same page here.

  4. Oh I love it, use the riot as a cause to push this law through, bah.
    Love your opinion/analysis, so so true.

  5. High profile hearing impaired advocates have done cyberbullying campaigns too. One high ranking closed captioning advocate had been doing a supersecret cyberbullying campaign for six years against another hearing impaired advocate before she got caught last July. This discovery could impact everything from closed captioning, deaf education, TRS-VRS access, movie theater captioning, and related advocacy campaigns. The big upshot is that the advocacy stance and the civil rights of people with hearing impairments could be sent backwards by as much as 30 years. See more about it at

  6. The often repeated claim that cyber bullying is just a problem for ‘celebrities’ worries me.
    In the end, it’s hard to disagree with most social network commentators who point out regulating tweets and forum posts across national borders is totally unworkable. However, it’s rather silly to suggest tweets and Facebook attacks have not led to mental issues and suicide amongst ordinary people.
    On the Roxon angle, it’s plain that law enforcement have followed the trail of texts, tweets and emails regarding the protest last weekend. The UK riots of 2011 were both fueled and co-ordinated by texts.
    I’m not saying where i stand, because I haven’t made up my own mind yet, but it’s only rational to expect law enforcement and therefore government to want to monitor texts, tweets and other electronic media, as criminals and terrorists exploit that technology for their own ends.
    Of course, that could easily lead to government snooping on legitimate protest, let alone normal personal communications. And that’s the problem.

    • Mail and phone conversations was used in the past for the same purpose, yet it wouldn’t be acceptable for the government to record all phone conversation and copy all letters just in case they needed the the information latter. Police already have the laws in place to request intercepts and logging of this information when they can show cause.

  7. As if you didn’t know she was planing on linking the “twitter trolls”and the data retention scheme together. The riots just added to this argument.
    Police are already able to access the data they need with the necessary paperwork -i.e a court order etc
    Saying that these laws are necessary for Police to “build a case together against a suspect” is ridiculous.

    All they need to do, is invest in media tracking tools, such as sysomo, get a few moderators, type in their key phrases such as “terrorism”, or bullying slurs, and whiz-bang, all the info they need is at their fingertips.

  8. I would like Ms Roxon to spell out specifically how the proposed laws would help in any way regarding the recent Sydney protests. If the agitators were not already under scrutiny, and thus possibly subject to interception orders anyway, how on earth would the proposed laws have helped?

    As a secondary thing… the protests were not beyond the bounds of the existing police capability to handle. People involved have come forward or been collared anyway. It boggles the mind that such an indiscriminate set of laws would be tied to an event that can only be considered a whitewash for the police as it is.

    Muso1 noted “The UK riots of 2011 were both fueled and co-ordinated by texts.
    … it’s only rational to expect law enforcement and therefore government to want to monitor texts, tweets and other electronic media, as criminals and terrorists exploit that technology for their own ends.”

    This is completely possible now under the existing laws as far as I can tell. This is more a question of capability than requiring laws for easier intercepts. How many of those tweets and other messages were publicly available anyway? Probably the vast bulk of them.

    • “I would like Ms Roxon to spell out specifically how the proposed laws would help in any way regarding the recent Sydney protests. If the agitators were not already under scrutiny, and thus possibly subject to interception orders anyway, how on earth would the proposed laws have helped?”

      I think you missed the point, if the proposed laws were in place then EVERYONE would be under scrutiny. You wouldn’t need interceptions on anyone prior to them doing whatever it is you want them to be doing, you just look at what they have done (since the proposal means what everyone does will be recorded) and use that.

      The whole idea is basically for a big internet wiretap on everyone all the time.

  9. Google is bad for collecting data but the Government is an institution which is full of selfless individuals who only want to help. Which is why we should trust the government to teach our children, to tell us how to spend our money and now we should trust our government with our privacy.

    It all limits our ability to change the world for the better… unless we follow Approved Avenues of World Improvement.

    • Of course, anyone from the government is only here to help us.

      And as Ms Roxon rightly infers, only terrorists could possibly have any self-serving evil reason to object to data retention legislation…

  10. Of course, our federal government wouldn’t stoop to populism to push ridiculous law.

    And yes, Ms Roxon is shooting herself in the foot by preemptively expanding the use to which Internet data may be put. I think we all recognise that once a “law enforcement” or “security” agency has access to data, they will tell us why it isn’t enough and they need more.

    Sorry, but I don’t trust people to “do the right thing”.

  11. If the Government wants to give the impression of dealing with the ¨rioters¨ somebody should send a memo to the Minister for Censorship Stephen Conroy, I am not sure that the demonstration had dispersed before he was contacting Youtube to request the video be taken down, unconditionallly capitulating to the demands of a group you want to claim requires new powers to deal with has to look silly even to the most ardent ALP supporter.

  12. I recall politicians calling for uncensored social media during recent uprising like Libya and Egypt and for other places like Iran, China and the like but, it’s not okay when it applies to us.
    It is nothing but fear mongering by Roxon and the losses of accountability for authorities and anonymity for whistle blowers and informants far outweigh any perceived increases in security. These oppressive measures designed to limit speech are being pursued by cowards who have no respect for our brave soldiers who have sacrificed so that we may have.
    It will only be a matter of time before one of us is arrested for ringing the wrong person.

  13. Easy way to deal with trolls: block them. Pretty much every type of “social media” has some kind of block feature. The idea of police getting involved with twitter posts is simply retarded.

    Roxon must be desperate to try and pile this onto the flimsy list of non-reasons to record data on the whole population “just in case”.

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