<i>Illustration: Simon Bosch</i>

Illustration: Simon Bosch

Dob. Squeal. Tattle-tale. Turncoat. Snitch. Snake-in-the-grass. Rat.

Telling on other people, most would argue, is un-Australian.

We stand by our mates, we stick it to authority, we have each other’s backs. Which is why it was so jarring this week to read of the new social media policy for public servants with a clause asking people to dob in their colleagues if they see them criticising the government on any social media platform. (Which makes those Facebook requests from workmates suddenly a whole lot more awkward.)

It was exposed, reported on, then suddenly made secret. The head of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, described it as "extraordinary". The Community and Public Sector Union is challenging the policy, national secretary Nadine Flood slamming it as "new, nasty" and "entirely unnecessary".

Do we really want to monitor those we work with for their private political views, however subtly or forcefully expressed?

As the Urban Dictionary bluntly explains: " 'Dibber Dobber' is not an endearing term, and these people are often disliked by others." It then goes on to give a curiously prescient example of Dibber-dobber behaviour.

"Thomas: 'Are you guys supposed to be on Facebook at work?'

Catherine: 'Well, not really but we're only having a quick look.'

Thomas: 'Well, I'm telling the boss ...' 

Catherine: 'Dibber Dobber!' "

In truth, a lot of Australians are quite fond of dobbing. Many state and federal government departments have benefited from official "dob-In" lines for illegal immigrants, people who litter, waste water or dump rubbish, bad taxi drivers, drug cheats, "yobs" at cricket grounds, tax dodgers, bullies, seafood merchants who don’t label produce correctly. And they’ve mostly been tremendously successful.

About 100,000 of us dob in welfare fraudsters each year: Centrelink gets more than 2000 tip-offs each week. In the first year of the government’s terrorism hotline, 14,000 called. Now the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has asked us to dob-in Woolworths and Coles for any poor treatment of suppliers.

There is of course, an upside to dobbing – when frauds, cheats, bullies, racists or harassers are exposed. Whistleblowing is important, and another matter entirely. But should we really "expose" a colleague for having personal views?

Frank Bongiorno, Associate Professor from the School of History at the ANU, shrugs off those affronted by an "un-Australian" behaviour: "The Australian ideal of mateship – which has historically been more about the bond between men more than women – has involved the idea that you don’t dob in a mate."

But, he adds that the government’s new dobbing rule does not "offend our Australian identity so much as people’s claims to privacy (What I do and say outside of my work is my business) and of trust (No one wants to feel that the person on the next desk might have them under surveillance)."

Most employees would be acutely aware of their company’s social media policies. About 9 million Australians log into Facebook every day: 90 per cent of all internet users. Three million of us use Twitter.

Many of us have worked in companies where people have been sacked for online usage – accessing porn or hacking into emails for example – or disciplined for saying inappropriate things on Twitter. You would have to be a fool to tweet overt criticism of the government, or your company in an area related to your work. Any social media policy dictates as such.

But asking us to monitor our colleagues for expressing political views stretches far beyond usual policy to become a prurient, creepy kind of spying. How do we define what acceptable "criticism" or "comment" is?

And how can this not involve a breach of privacy?

Sydney University’s Professor Barbara McDonald is chair of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Inquiry into Serious Invasions of Privacy in the Digital Era, which has recommended a new civil tort for privacy. While it is unclear whether reporting on a workmate’s comments on social media would breach the Privacy Act (which usually applies to  large commercial entities and government departments), it "could well" breach their proposed tort, she says.

For such a requirement to be legal, she says, "you would have to argue there is a greater public interest in knowing every private thought of a public servant, whether or not they have a role in making decisions about what is being discussed. It could be a real infringement of privacy, which actually protects freedom of speech, allowing people to speak without fear of being exposed."

"This," McDonald says, "is why it is illegal to record people’s phone conversations without consent, otherwise people would never say anything."

McDonald says this is not the first time she has seen policies encouraging workers to dob in colleagues, and it is a disturbing trend. Commenting on an offer to reward people who dob in copyright infringers, she says, "what are we going to be: a nation of Stasi-like citizens keeping watch to see if someone is going to infringe someone else's commercial interests? Of course it’s important that public service be seen as unbiased, but if you are looking after, say, water resources, I can’t see why you can't talk privately about immigration to your friends on restricted social media."

The legal principles, then, in a case regarding breach of privacy would be: how many people can see this post? Are the settings made private? And does it relate directly to the work you do?

This means the guidelines from the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Office – which are now, ironically, being kept secret, potentially violate both existing and proposed laws to protect privacy.

The fact that the government is combining an unprecedented secrecy for execution of its public policies with an unprecedented exposure of its workers’ private views is, at the least, disturbing. 

@bairdjulia on Twitter