Australian Public Servants Warned Against Liking Social Media Posts That Are Critical Of Government Policies

from the couldn't-happen-in-the-US-oh-wait dept

The Internet effectively turns everyone into a publisher, able to promulgate their ideas in a way that was not open to most people before. That's great for the democratization of media -- and terrible for governments that want to control the flow of information to citizens. The Australian government is particularly concerned about what its 150,000 public servants might say. It has issued a "guidance" document that "sets out factors for employees to consider in making decisions about whether and what to post". Here's why:

The speed and reach of online communication means that material posted online is available immediately to a wide audience. It can be difficult to delete and may be replicated endlessly. It may be sent to, or seen by, people the author never intended or expected would see it.

Deciding whether to make a particular comment or post certain material online is a matter of careful judgement rather than a simple formula. This guidance sets out factors for employees to consider in making decisions about whether and what to post.

That sounds reasonable enough. But it turns out that what the policy is really about is muzzling public employees, and stopping them from expressing or supporting views that disagree with government policies. As the Australian organization Digital Rights Watch summarizes:

The new guidelines warn that public servants would be in breach of code of conduct if they "liked" anti-government posts, privately emailing negative material or do not remove "nasty comments" about the government posted by others. The new policies apply to employees even if they use social media in a private capacity outside of work hours.

It also applies to your past employment with the Australian government -- and futures ones:

it is also worth bearing in mind that comments you make about an agency you've never worked in might be made public and taken into account if you apply for a job there later. Perhaps you haven't breached the Code, but you might have ruled yourself out for that job if the comment could reasonably call into question your capacity to work there impartially.

In other words, if you criticize any aspect of government policy, you'll never work in this town again. What's troubling about this move is not just that it is limiting people's freedom of speech -- something that the guidance freely admits:

The common law recognises an individual right to freedom of expression. This right is subject to limitations such as those imposed by the Public Service Act. In effect, the Code of Conduct operates to limit this right.

It's also that we have seen before where this kind of muzzling leads. Back in 2013, Techdirt wrote about similar rules for public servants in Canada, only rescinded last year. One of the most problematic areas was in the field of the environment, since it meant that even world-leading scientists were unable to point out publicly the evident flaws in the the Canadian government's climate policy. It looks like experts employed by the Australian government now find themselves similarly unable to be openly critical of the official line, no matter how misguided or dangerous it may be. There are also signs that a similar muzzling of scientists is starting to take place in the US. Despite unequivocal evidence of "drastic" climate change in a new, but unreleased US government report, emails obtained by the Guardian reveal the following:

Staff at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been told to avoid using the term climate change in their work, with the officials instructed to reference "weather extremes" instead.

At least they can still like social media posts that are critical of the US government's environmental policies. For now...

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  1. icon
    Captain Beard (profile), 9 Aug 2017 @ 1:55pm

    Re: Re: Civil servants discover the value of pseudonyms

    Wow. That just makes it so much worse.

    Also covered in that same portion of the FAQ: You're not even supposed to post anonymously.

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