Cancel Culture Is Now Labor Policy

Written by:
23 May 2024
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In this article, Director of Law and Policy John Storey contextualises and disseminates the IPA’s research on Australia’s internet censorship and misinformation laws.

The real agenda behind the eSafety Commissioner’s litigation against Musk

Cancel culture, the silencing of opposing views by seeking to destroy livelihoods, is an insidious phenomenon that blights the modern West. And it has mutated well beyond simply trying to have someone fired for saying something an activist disagrees with. Today, sophisticated campaigns of economic coercion and intimidation are launched to silence certain viewpoints.

But rather than being horrified at this distortion of market economics and the weaponisation and politicisation of commerce, many policymakers in Australia are looking to embrace it.

The catalyst for this will be the Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant’s failing court case against Elon Musk’s social media company, X. Last week, an injunction obtained by Inman Grant against X was lifted by Federal Court Justice Geoffrey Kennett. The injunction related to the footage of the recent stabbing and alleged terrorist attack of a bishop in his church in Sydney, which the eSafety Commissioner demanded be removed from the internet.

X had agreed to ‘geo-block’ the footage from being seen in Australia, but not for international users. Despite the dubious rationale for blocking content of this nature which is clearly of considerable public interest, and the fact that most Australians are unable to see the footage anyway, this was not sufficient for Inman Grant. Some Australians use VPNs (virtual private networks) to connect to the internet which masks their physical location in Australia. Only a global ban could prevent all Australians from seeing the footage. For that reason she obtained an injunction requiring X to comply with the ban on a global basis.

The law requires X to take ‘all reasonable steps’ to block the footage from Australian users. The case turns on whether it is reasonable to require X to impose a global ban, or that the geo-blocking of the footage was sufficient to comply with the takedown notice. The practical and political issues a global ban raises were acknowledged by Justice Kennett who said that, ‘There is widespread alarm at the prospect of a decision by an official of a national government restricting access to controversial material on the internet by people all over the world. It has been said that if such capacity existed it might be used by a variety of regimes for a variety of purposes, not all of which would be benign.’ Justice Kennet concluded that based on the arguments advanced so far, the case is unlikely to succeed and therefore the injunction should be lifted.

However, the case is still afoot. The eSafety Commissioner is chasing X for the payment of huge fines for refusing to comply fully with her edicts. A court date has been set for late July but, based on Justice Kennett’s comments, it seems destined to fail.

So why is a case that is destined to fail, that is costing a fortune in taxpayer funds, that is unpopular in Australia and an embarrassment abroad, still being pursued? It is because winning the case is no longer the primary objective. Perhaps it never was.

A central problem with trying to censor the internet is that the internet is global, and all the big players are based outside Australia. In April, an issues paper was released to review the operation of the law governing the eSafety Commissioner’s powers, the Online Safety Act 2021. That paper acknowledges the ‘practical challenges to enforcement outside of Australia’. But rather than rethink the idea of trying to patrol and police the entire internet, the solution being proposed is to increase Inman Grant’s powers.

The paper poses the question as to whether the eSafety Commissioner should ‘have powers to impose sanctions such as business disruption sanctions?’ If this sounds bad, it is. It would empower Inman Grant to ‘stop other companies working with a platform to prevent it from generating money’ in Australia.

In other words, the eSafety Commissioner would have the power to launch her own personal cancellation crusade against Elon Musk or anyone else who displeased her. Instead of being limited to issuing takedown notices that get ignored or overturned by courts, Inman Grant could legally prevent Australian advertisers from using X. She could demand that banks refuse to work with X, or that telecommunication or utility companies cut off essential services to X. She could ensure airlines or ride sharing services refuse to transport staff members of X.

Inman Grant has received widespread criticism for launching her litigation against X. On 15 April, before the litigation with Musk, there were 239 online mentions of the eSafety Commissioner, whereas barely ten days later it had skyrocketed to 31,870 mentions. We know this because the court documents have revealed that the same public servant with the power to censor the internet at her whim also, in Orwellian fashion, monitors the internet at taxpayer expense for personal criticisms she has received.

But others, including the Prime Minister, have attempted to demonise Elon Musk and paint him as the villain. Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie went so far as to call for Musk to be sent to prison. If X wins the case, which seems inevitable, these same voices will use the outcome to highlight flaws in the laws and the need for even more powers to be granted to the eSafety Commissioner.

Prime Minister Albanese has already alluded to how this episode means we must push forward with the introduction of his proposed misinformation and disinformation laws. He said after the stabbing attack that ‘surely there is now a recognition that misinformation is a problem on social media’. How the footage of this incident qualifies as ‘misinformation’ was not explained.

And no doubt there is draft legislation just waiting to be released after the case against X is decided that will empower Julie Inman Grant to impose ‘business disruption sanctions’ against social media companies to deal with the irksome problem of international borders.

If that happens, then cancel culture will cease to be something that only activists engage in. It will be government policy.

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