Ackland, Richard: Mass surveillance and servants of the state

Ackland, Richard

Mass surveillance makes us servants of the state: that’s chilling‘, Guardian Australia, 26 May 2015

Text of the PEN Free Voices lecture at the Sydney Writers Festival, 24 May 2015. There were more than 50 comments.

Censorship, control of the written word by the state, has a long and venerable history and our most recent national security laws are a blip on a long highway that stretches back even before the invention of the printing press.

Some here will know the dimensions of the recent commonwealth legislation, specifically the enhancement to Asio’s powers in last year’s National Security Act and the creation of something called special intelligence operations, that may not be reported on pain of imprisonment. Then there are the amendments to the telecommunications interception and access regime, providing for the mass collection of large amount of phone and internet data.

Each of those laws are a fundamental departure from the usual constraints attached to national security.

Ackland goes on to offer evidence for this claim, noting ‘that national security is frequently a fig leaf to hide all sorts of information that should be in the public domain – without threatening anyone’s security’. He examines details of the data retention legislation and then notes a historical precedent:

In the first world war Australia’s censorship was outsourced to Britain. The censor’s office was administered by the Australian Army, with a deputy chief censor in Melbourne who answered to the chief censor in London. We had a War Precautions Act, which was modelled on Britain’s Defence of Realm Act.

In fact, Australian censors were more zealous. On occasion, material that arrived second-hand from Britain and had already passed British censors was disallowed here. A regulation gave the censor rights to search newspaper premises on the basis of suspicion of publication of injurious matter, and, if necessary, to destroy it.

By 1915 the Act was amended so that newspapers could not mention or illustrate that an item had been censored, and to allow the censor to require journals bound by an order to submit all material relating to the war.

He says more about World War I and World War II censorship. Resources on recent Australian legislation are here.

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