South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson has backed away from a law requiring internet users to provide their real names and other information when commenting on the upcoming election, saying it will not be enforced and will be repealed immediately after the election.
The law, which actually came into effect on January 6 as part of a series of amendments to the state's Electoral Act, requires internet users who post stories or comments related to the upcoming state election to provide their real names and postcodes. Although it's quite clearly targeted at The Advertiser's AdelaideNow website, the law applies to all Australian news sites, yet Atkinson claimed it doesn't restrict free speech in any way.
"The AdelaideNow website is not just a sewer of criminal defamation, it is a sewer of identity theft and fraud," he said. "There is no impinging on freedom of speech, people are free to say what they wish as themselves, not as somebody else."
Atkinson acknowledged that he would be "punished" for the law, although he seemed to feel that it would be the media rather than the general public that would be behind the backlash. "I am also certain that Advertiser Newspapers and News Limited will punish me personally, viciously for being the attorney-general responsible for this law," he added. "You will publish false stories about me, invent things about me to punish me."
That may have been a bit of a miscalculation. While news sites did in fact decry the "censorship" being imposed by the South Australian government, the tide of outrage that flowed forth from individual citizens seemed to catch Atkinson by surprise. The reaction was so strong, in fact, that Atkinson quickly backtracked, vowing that the law would not be enforced and would be repealed after the election, although he couldn't resist slipping in a quick, drive-by zinger in the process.
"From the feedback we've received through AdelaideNow, the blogging generation believes that the law supported by all MPs and all political parties is unduly restrictive. I have listened," he said in a statement. "I will immediately after the election move to repeal the law retrospectively."
"It may be humiliating for me, but that's politics in a democracy and I'll take my lumps," he continued. "This way, no one need fear now that they are being censored on the net or in blogs, whether they blog under their own name or anonymously. The law will be repealed retrospectively. I call upon all the other political parties who supported this review to also review their position."
It's interesting to note that while Atkinson was the target of anger over the new law, it was, as he said, actually supported in Parliament by all political parties, including the opposition Liberals. "All MPs and all parties voted for Electoral law. Hope Libs, Greens, Family First, Independents etc will join us to support repeal," South Australia Premier Mike Rann posted on Twitter. "For many young people, and even the not so young, internet is their parliament of ideas and information.''