Date created: 12/4/07
Last modified:12/4/07
Maintained by: John Quiggin
John Quiggin

Let a hundred blogs bloom

Australian Financial Review

1 September 2005

One of the striking social and cultural developments of the past few years has been the growth of blogs (or, weblogs). Blogs are web pagesorganised in a diary format, using software that automatically posts new entries at the top of the page, and removes older entries to an archive. The typical blog will feature a facility allowing readers to comment on entries and a sidebar containing links to other blogs and sites of interest.

The number of blogs has now passed 15 million. Many of these are bogus sites set up by spammers. Most of the rest are personal diaries or are devoted to concerns ranging from cats to computer games.

Media attention has been grabbed by the much smaller, but still large, number of blogs focusing on politics and news analysis, some of which have audiences in the tens of thousands. This is scarcely surprising, as these blogs commonly present themselves as an alternative to the ‘mainstream media’, and therefore attract the attention of those media.

For a variety of reasons, many bloggers use pseudonyms, and nearly all blogs include facilities for pseudonymous comment. There are a variety of reasons for seeking anonymity. Some bloggers reveal aspects of their personal lives that might be embarrassing. Others may be concerned (with justification) about the possibility of harassment by people who are offended by their views. Still others don’t wish to cause trouble for themselves in employment or business by espousing controversial views in public.

Some of these blogs have made a useful contribution to public debate. Others offer little more than irresponsible rants and diatribes. (Of course, opinions will differ as to which is which). But either way, political blogging in Australia is threatened by proposals to prohibit the publication of anonymous electoral comment on the Internet.

During the 2004 Federal election, a lot of attention was attracted by a blog-style site with the self-explanatory title johnhowardlies.com. The typical entry on the site consisted of quotes from the Prime Minister and other ministers, under the heading “The Lie”, along with a claimed refutation, under the heading “The Fact”.

The site did not provide identification of its publishers, though it was easy enough to determine that the operator was a former Labor staffer, Tim Grau. The absence of explicit identification led to a proposal by Special Minister of State Eric Abetz to regulate Internet sites carrying political content by requiring authorisation under Section 328. This proposal is currently being considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

Proposals of this kind have already proved effectively unenforceable in relation to talkback radio, and they would be even more so in relation to the Internet. It takes about five minutes to setup a blog using the free and popular Blogger software, and the only identification required is an email address, which can also be obtained freely and without identification.

Application of Section 328 to blogs and comments would have no practical impact in preventing the anonymous publication of false or irresponsible political material on the Internet. To the extent that such publication can be prevented at all, existing defamation law provides a superior avenue.

On the other hand, such proposals, unless very tightly drafted, would encompass virtually all issue-based blogs in Australia. The reach of Section 328 is very broad. It applies at all times, not merely during declared election campaigns and the scope under 4(1) includes ‘include any express or implicit reference to, or comment on: the election; the Government; the Opposition; a political party or candidate; or any issue submitted to, or otherwise before, the electors in connection with the election.’ If Section 328 were applied to Internet in publications in general, the effect would be to close down most current blogs, and nearly all comments sections and bulletin boards.

This would have a severe chilling effect on the most rapidly expanding and innovative section of the media, with substantial adverse effects on Australian culture and, ultimately, on technological progress.

A preferable approach would be to restrict regulation to paid advertising, inlcuding the creation of websites on behalf of political parties (the funding source in the case of johnhowardlies.com is not clear, and this was one of the issues in dispute). Although such a regulation would be difficult to enforce, it would be broadly consistent with the rules applying to print and other traditional media, and might discourage some political dirty tricks without infringing too much on political debate.

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

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