Posting political commentary online under a false name in the weeks before an election is technically illegal. Photo: Louie Douvis
On Friday, the ACT government will enter the election caretaker period. And in the five weeks that follow, hundreds of Canberrans - indeed, probably thousands - will break the law. The Canberra Times will even abet them.
Most of these citizens will be unaware of their offence, which will be to breach section 292 of the ACT's Electoral Act. That is, they'll disseminate ''unauthorised electoral matter''. The act is very clear on what this means: it covers any electoral comment - spoken on TV or radio, or printed in a newspaper or on a website - from someone who fails to identify himself/herself and, hence, take legal responsibility for what they say. A comment is ''electoral'' in nature if it's about the performance of a candidate or party contesting the election, or about a party's policies. In other words, it's pretty broad.
So if you use Twitter but, like many people, use a pseudonym, and tweet a criticism of a policy or a candidate, you will break the law. If you visit The Canberra Times' website and post a comment on a political news story, but, like most online commenters, choose to use an alias, you will break the law. Ditto for any other website. By making anonymous comments, you'll risk a $1100 fine.
Except, it's not really a risk at all. The tiny ACT Electoral Commission, which is responsible for enforcing the act, has a core staff of six people. It can't comprehensively monitor the net, let alone police it. Section 292 is effectively a relic from a pre-social-media age, when just a handful of publishers and broadcasters could disseminate public messages.
Back in 2010, the South Australian Labor government was game (or foolish) enough to try to regulate websites. It amended that state's Electoral Act to oblige all online commenters to disclose their name and suburb, or be exposed to a $1250 fine. Attorney-General Michael Atkinson justified the change by saying the AdelaideNow website, which is run by The Advertiser newspaper, had been ''used in a fraudulent manner for people to make all kinds of accusations against other people using false names and indeed using other people's names''.
Atkinson then took a rather large step too far, saying on radio: ''I'll give you an example. Repeatedly in the AdelaideNow website, one will see commentary from Aaron Fornarino, of West Croydon. That person doesn't exist … That name has been created by the Liberal Party in order to run Liberal Party commentary.''
Unfortunately for Atkinson, Fornarino did exist: he posed for The Advertiser's front-page photo the next day. A campaign of mass civil disobedience ensued, which the newspaper encouraged. Labor eventually junked the change without issuing a single fine. It was, in the words of the victors, a triumph of free speech.
Yet this emerging public culture of anonymity has its downsides. For one thing, Atkinson was right: news websites, talkback radio and popular blogs are regularly subjected to political ''astroturfing'': comments from party apparatchiks made in the name of the Everyman. It can be difficult to identify and filter out these fraudsters.
There's also the matter of the quality of public discourse. On occasion, I vet both this newspaper's letters to the editor and its online comments, and I've seen the vast difference in the thoughtfulness of the two types of interactions. It's true that, in some circles, the net has greatly enriched public debate, not least by providing a platform on which mainstream news outlets can be criticised. But it's also diluted the meaningfulness of much of that debate with vapid, offensive tosh - and the worst of it is almost always written anonymously.
I have no Luddite yearnings for the past; I gain far too much from online communication to wish it away. Nor do I think there's much point in forcing people to disclose their identity online. Rather, I hope that, over time, we'll simply stop paying attention to those who lack the courage to name themselves. They're much more likely to be trolls than freedom fighters. And why ban trolls when we can just stop believing in them?