Why the new ASIO bill must be stopped

Cross-posted at WL Central

A new development in global law harmonization against the perpetual War on Everything is a new amended bill being passed through Australian Parliament, which will further fatten up ASIO’s capabilities to spy on Australians and anyone else abroad. Crikey reports on the bill’s proposed changes:

“Foreign intelligence” is redefined to relate to “intelligence about the capabilities, intentions or activities of people or organisations outside Australia”.
Under current legislation, it is limited to “intelligence relating to the capabilities, intentions or activities of a foreign power”. Similarly, the concept of a “foreign power” has been redefined — currently it applies to “a foreign government, an entity that is directed or controlled by a foreign government or governments, or a foreign political organisation”. Under the bill, it will become “people, organisations and governments outside Australia”.

That’s pretty damn broad.

Bascially, anyone who organises in groups to campaign about political and social issues, such as antiwar activists, environmental activists, refugee advocates, anti-censorship activists – anyone who communicates with others overseas to campaign against Australian government policy – will be able to be targeted by ASIO under these new laws.

Crikey suggests that groups without a specific political agenda, such as Wikileaks and online lulz masters Anonymous, may also be targets. By this logic, so could the Australian Pirate Party, which pits itself against hawkish and well-funded copyright lobby groups, and whose sister parties in Europe have been subject to civil lawsuits and police investigation.

Presently there are 10 suggestions regarding this bill tabled in the Senate. Only half of these submissions are critical of the amendment.

The Law Council of Australia and the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University have responded with the voice of common sense, but this overall dismal response, reflects amongst other things, the need for a truly cohesive and energetic civil liberties movement in Australia. (An Australian Bill of Rights is also wanting, but that’s a whole other depressing story in itself).

This is the latest chapter in the widening scope of ASIO’s activities and jurisdiction since 2001. As Daniel Baldino, who has written an excellent paper (.pdf) on the growing intelligence behemoth in Australia has pointed out: “Under Australia’s National Counter-Terrorist Plan (2003) …ASIO has been drawn into the arena of domestic policing. Previously, the agency had no powers to detain and interrogate members of the community…For the first time in its history, ASIO could detain people without charge, trial or conviction and conduct compulsory questioning for information gathering.”

The Castan Centre’s submission to the Senate points out that the most obvious motivation behind this new ASIO bill is the ongoing effort to silence Wikileaks. This makes perfect sense: Wikileaks is a unique mix of principles and structures that aims to trigger reform in both the political and media milieu – two spheres which are dovetailed together by association and funding. Most importantly, Wikileaks is stateless – claiming no allegiance to any sovereign nation or territory – as it exists solely online and is mirrored by thousands around the world who have devoted web server space to the cause. Of most relevance to ASIO however, is that Wikileaks’ chief Julian Assange is an Australian national – and that his organization has immense support amongst his fellow citizens, many of whom have formed alliance networks online.

What is perhaps underestimated by certain quarters is the power of political embarrassment (although there is no doubt that this would not be underestimated by those who have followed the Wikileaks story closely). The seeds of this new ASIO bill had been sown from late 2010, when Wikileaks began publishing its ‘mega-leak’ of secretly classified U.S diplomatic cables – including dispatches from the U.S Embassy in Canberra. The Australian government, in the classic trait characteristic of Commonwealth nations, sees its relationship with the U.S as unshakeable and forever ideologically intertwined. So intertwined in fact, that when it was revealed via Wikileaks that a currently serving Labour minister was/is a mole for the Americans, a small blip appeared in the Australian news media cycle – but that minister still has a job. In private, the Gillard government was in damage control. As The Age later reported, frenetic intelligence reporting on Wikileaks was already taking place. Assange, already aware of Australian intelligence keeping tabs on his team and it support base, confronted Julia Gillard with this on a particularly riveting episode of Q and A. It’s easy to figure that this new legislation is a move by ASIO to cover its hide retroactively for surveillance activity it is already conducting.

Under Item 7 – Paragraph 27A(1)(b), the wording of the bill is as follows:

“This item will amend the conditions for the issue of foreign intelligence warrants under the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 […]This item will amend this condition so that the issuing Minister may issue a warrant for foreign intelligence collection if satisfied, on the basis of advice received from the Defence Minister or the Foreign Affairs Minister, that the collection of foreign intelligence relating to that matter is in the interests of Australia’s national security, Australia’s foreign relations or Australia’s national economic well-being. The new conditions recognise the broader nature of the contemporary threat environment.“

This excerpt highlights how the Intelligence Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 is reactionary law-making at worst – criminalizing the exposure of political embarrassments, hastily drafted with no adequate consideration of public debate, the knee-jerk response of a state apparatus that is on the defensive about its reputation and efficacy.

Such bills that have passed through Australian parliament into law, each more draconian than the last, defy the understanding of ordinary citizens and legal professionals alike. With each successive wave of legislation, due process is further abrogated into meaninglessness: accountability mechanisms are dismantled with the endless extension of sunset clauses and delay of review procedures (witness similar recent developments in the U.S with the Patriot Act), the reversal of the burden of proof principle, and the conflation of intelligence with evidence. The arbitrary grip of unanswerable law enforcement and intelligence power is tightening further while we watch with buckets of popcorn in our laps.

There has been a quiet, defeatist acceptance of these newly imposed realities on the Australian public for various reasons. The hackneyed and anti-logical “I’ve got nothing to hide” argument is frequently cited with a shrug of the shoulders by people who have not been adequately informed of new developments in the law and who have been blindsided by spin. Then there is an acquiescent leadership and opposition in parliament, which routinely disregards its citizens’ civil liberties due to its mortal fear of appearing soft on preordained geopolitical agendas. Tying all these factors together is a flaccid, stenographic culture of journalistic practice that merely parrots such legislation instead of methodically tearing it apart.

With each new ‘dragnet’ style law that is enacted, only the public suffers, for those who administer such laws are blithely unaccountable. Severe political pressure has been applied to Wikileaks for some time – and less controversial but equally legitimate community groups are now under threat.

How Freedom of Speech Gets Caught In Its Own Web

The following article, hitherto unpublished, I originally wrote for a university assignment in April 2010. A fresh threat from Stephen Conroy and comments from Electronic Frontiers Australia made me nostalgic.

via accessmaincomputerfile.net

Dear Customer

The purpose of this email is to advise you that your web browser history has been flagged by our Internet Filter Compliance team. Our records show that you viewed the video “Hot Monkey Love 2: Valentine’s Day Monkey Affair” via a video streaming site on 4th May. In order to assist us with our ACMA reporting process, we request that you explain your reasons for accessing this material in a clear and concise manner before we continue our investigation.
Your assistance is appreciated.

Kind Regards
Your ISP Pty Ltd

If you find the above correspondence horribly unfunny, it may be that like many Australians, you find the idea of a mandatory internet filter reprehensible. Yet this kind of intrusion into our personal activity is not such a radical scenario to imagine – because it is already dawning upon us.

Like successive high school graduates, I was introduced to the splendid terror of George Orwell’s 1984 in English class. Feeding the word ‘Orwellian’ into Google returns 1,820,000 hits. Although this neologism has been intermittently popular since 1948, its relevance to our current milieu is growing.

In 2007, amongst promises of doing right by the environment and the education system, Kevin Rudd’s Labor government vowed it would make the internet safe for children. An ISP-level filter – an experiment initiated by the Howard government in closed testing mode – was decided upon as the best way to shield our young and impressionable from an assumed predatory reality.

If one was new to the internet (just indulge me for a moment), the best analogy to draw for them would be that the Australian government’s proposed internet filter is the equivalent of policing the Great Victoria Desert with a rickety dingo fence. According to the anti- internet censorship lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia, the overwhelming drawbacks and inherent pointlessness of employing such a system are obvious – even to those who do not have technical knowledge of the internet. The ‘blacklist’ of a few thousand web pages hardly makes an effective filter considering the scope of the internet, a network consisting of billions of pages.

“I think that the internet is a special case – it is borderless, and it seems to be a futile undertaking to try to restrict content within any one country. For example, peer to peer content can’t be censored,” says Dr. Mike Minehan, former lecturer at UTS and managing director of The Ideas Channel. Indeed, a sizeable portion of internet traffic is generated by peer to peer file sharing – in addition to this, the filter is also powerless against email and chat rooms, which are arguably the biggest forums for child molesters.

However, the pretense of protecting children starts to crumble under more rigorous examination of the government’s intentions. Bewilderingly, sites depicting female ejaculation, euthanasia, abortion, sexual fetishes are earmarked for censorship. Whilst child pornography is clearly indefensible, the other material defined as ‘unacceptable’ is still information that the public have a right to know about if they so choose.

As Reporters Without Borders has pointed out, the filter has effectively placed Australia in the same dubious category as China, Burma, and Iran with regards to freedom of expression online.
As if to emphasise this unfortunate association with Orwellian regimes, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has kept the blacklist a secret, suggesting any inclusions on the list are arbitrary.

On April 7, 2010 Senator Stephen Conroy fuelled the nonsensicality with his post on the website The Punch: “The Refused Classification Content list cannot be made public because if it was, it would simply be a catalogue to direct people to specific URLs that are Refused Classification. Also, publishing links to child abuse content is a criminal offence.” In the same post Conroy further confounds logic by stating that his government has “never said ISP-level filtering alone would help fight child pornography or keep children safe online.” The obvious question to ask is: why is so much money being spent on a filter that won’t even work to achieve its aim?

Most crucial are the technical considerations. Circumvention of the filter is a given and the evidence suggests that it will be so commonplace as to render the filter a symbolic gesture rather than a watertight system. With this in mind, we can assume the filter is obsolete before it is even ‘switched on’. What really looms larger is the fact that Australian politicians deemed the whole concept necessary in the first place. In fact, such international heavyweights as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and the U.S Government have also raised their eyebrows and loudly pointed out the complicated futility of Conroy’s crusade.

“I believe that the government’s decision to implement [the] internet filter is partly a political decision to appeal to parents and religious groups,” says Dr. Minehan. In light of such overwhelming cons against the filtering plan, one motive appears evident – Conroy’s attempt to appease the Christian right in Parliament, effectively securing votes for other motions the Rudd government sees as higher priority (a pity that freedom of communication doesn’t count). Clues can be found amongst the material on the proposed blacklist as described above.

Blake Moore, a communications student at UTS, understands the child safety intentions but believes “the underlying agenda is…to remove the ability of Australians to see more than the government is telling them.”

The Media That Bogans Like

Churnalism

The excellent and hilarious Australian blog, Things Bogans Like often takes aim at Australia’s passive consumerist culture, via devastatingly canny roastings of our trashy press. For sane Australians of a certain mental acuity, TBL articulates the misery in which we live on a daily basis. In fact, I find it so astute as a cultural critique, I even referenced it in an academic paper on Australian identity:

“[a]…highly sardonic and surprisingly nuanced cultural critique is the website Things Bogans Like. Its targets include Australians’ uncritical acceptance and celebration of soporific mass media, moral panics, the worship of sporting professionals over intellectuals, and latent racism that is always preceded by such qualifiers as ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ Another target is conspicuous and foolhardy consumerism. The website defines ‘bogans’ as those who are perhaps a nouveau-riche middle class, or upwardly-mobile working class, who have more expendable income (or credit ratings) than sense and taste. The contemporary ‘bogan’ is represented as a technologically savvier descendent of the uncultured Australian that scholars have long been criticizing and analyzing. At the heart of this website is a challenge to Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital – that taste is a marker of class (Milner and Browitt 2002, p. 88).”

It’s probably the only instance where writing about Marxist theory was enjoyable.

More frequently, TBL serves as a handy blog on media criticism. The image above, posted on TBL’s Facebook page, is an article from News.com.au published on May 15. The annotations are self-explanatory, but best read alongside Crikey’s notable joint research project with the ACIJ, Spinning The Media: How Much of Your Daily News Is PR? (.pdf).

Can we create a mathematical formula to explain Australian mainstream media? E.g:
Confected outrage + churnalism x unattributed experts as sources = a useless piece of fluff to share with your fellow zombies at the water cooler.

Now I’m off to the inner-city cafe I frequent to enjoy a latte and a copy of the Green Left Weekly after hugging a refugee and some trees along the way.

Australian Mainstream Press Prognosis: Flu With A Hint of Creeping Death?

Earlier this month, media-watchers were informed of Fairfax’s decision to ditch hundreds of sub-editors in the name of cost-cutting by outsourcing the heavy lifting of sub-editing to AAP’s Pagemasters. Mel Campbell has already written an enlightening and witty piece on this topic in New Matilda. Considering the role that sub-editors play in checking for errors in copy both mundane and extraordinary, this is a disquieting development indeed.

In a same-but-different vein, Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited reported a $200 million drop in net profits in the third quarter. Unsurprisingly, Old Rupert pinned this dismal result on a lack of blue humanoids rather than any possible decline of clout. Aside from the old ‘news businesses are dying’ mantra (a mantra has arguably been swirling around since newspapers first became identified with the mass media), what are these signals telling us?

In the case of News Ltd, it may be good news for those of us who don’t appreciate so many trees being cut down for inky toilet paper. ABC’s Lateline has reported that Murdoch’s newspaper operation in Australia is the source of their profit hemorrhage. Evidence suggests 2010 was the International Year of “Piss Off, Rupert”. Operation Bolt Cutter may very well be another signpost on a long yet intellectually beautiful road. The internet is slowly but surely winning. “Yay” for the rest of us.

These figures and reports represent a very real disconnect between what Big Old News Media spouts on a daily basis and what the public actually cares about. Yay for the rest of us.

News Ltd et al are yet to lose their stranglehold on public perceptions of reality, but there is no doubt that their Facehugger-style window on the world is slowly losing its grip and allowing normal people to breathe. The beast is slowly dying, and will surely cost untold monies in palliative care to shareholders.

No full circles here, just endless loops

The bogeyman is dead.

Captain Obvious is currently working at peak capacity worldwide in dealing with both pithy and trite observations being updated on our screens in real-time.

I, like my generational peers, spent my late adolescence and early adulthood living in the shadow of Western-conceived Osama Bin Laden-symbolism. Too young to understand what the unfamiliarity of planes crashing into buildings meant in terms of warfare, but old enough to know that the political landscape had changed irrevocably. The media apparatus made sure we understood the latter as soon as possible.

The conspiracy theories began roiling in earnest. The visage of a man clearly fit only for mowing lawns (to put it charitably) continually appeared on screens with a drawling Texas accent to prepare us for crusade, war, endless war, with all the trappings and trimmings that accompany that gruesome theater.

The intervening years heralded a litany of abuses of law and practices in what can only be described as technologically efficient ways to transgress our own humanity. Many of these transgressions are widely known, but generally excused, dismissed or ignored by a public who were and are forever told to compare their lives to the dark horror of a pre-modern past, in order to be grateful with their lots. All these celebrations of the absurd were transmitted so very effectively by the perversion of language itself.

What happens when such a powerful and augmented symbol dies? For Bin Laden ceased to be a man long ago in the eyes of many. He became an effigy that absorbed all the stains of a increasingly-powerful and under-accountable elite. How will Empire fill the void? There will be no packing of bags on this battlefield; the generals and apparatchiks alike will shuffle their papers and re-calibrate their instruments, for the War Must Go On.

Will our only saving grace will be a mass of angry Arab youth, mobilized with understanding of their own painful history as well as love of all that is truly human, to spearhead the way out of suffocating, illiberal stupidity?

In the last twenty-four hours, my Twitter timeline was awash in bewilderment. Some rather popular libertarians and their followers alike lamented at how the United States became a much darker and toxic place, both politically and legally, to live in the last decade. Of course, they are right. This disease caught on like a pandemic. Read the woefully and ominously vague overreach of the legislation that was passed in the wake of the Bin Laden-branded attack on September 11: The United Kingdom’s and Australia’s debasement of the law pales in comparison to the Kraken that is the USA Patriot Act, however.

What is bemusing is that many libertarians, and those who have generally positioned themselves against their governments for moral and ethical reasons, still express dismay about the powerful’s brazen flouting of due process, adherence to constitutional law, or juridicial process in general. They forget that Empire (in Hardt and Negri’s sense of the term), by design, navigates its expansion outside of any juridicial processes. No exceptions.

We are currently condemned to a state of endless war, endless emergency, endless ‘humanitarian’ crisis, endless policing. In his official address to the Free World after Bin Laden’s assassination, President Obama wasted no time in dispensing the political equivalent of a Hail Mary: “The cause of securing our country is not complete.” The goal is to never complete the cause.

Long live all bogeymen.

Dubya image credit: @exiledsurfer