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Australian Public Service Commission social media guidance angers opposition and activists

Labor has called on the Coalition to explain new guidelines for the use of social media by public servants, warning disciplinary action over private communication or posts by family and friends is unfair.

The public sector union and the Greens called a new social media guidance released by the Australian Public Service Commission on Monday "overreach" and called for government employees to be allowed to participate in normal democratic debate.

Commission boss John Lloyd said the 3200-word guidance was no more restrictive than existing rules and was designed to clarify what public servants can and cannot say online.

Shadow employment minister Brendan O'Connor and shadow special minister of state Don Farrell said it was reasonable to expect public servants to work within the existing APS Code of Conduct, but threatening them with serious consequences for not deleting social media posts by others represented "a step too far".

"This totalitarian crackdown does not belong in an Australian Public Service Commission guide," they said.

Under the guidance, liking, reposting and sharing social media content could breach employment conditions, while public servants are warned not taking sensible action about objectionable material posted by someone else could be seen as endorsement.

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It bans anonymous posts criticising the government, including using a pseudonym, reminding public servants they can be traced through their digital footprint or via a "dob-in" to their department. A disclaimer about reposting or retweeting is advised, but might not prevent claims of political activity.

Public servants are warned anything they say in public "or which ends up in public" represents public comment, and joining individual online groups or pages could breach their employment conditions.

"Criticising your Minister, or the Prime Minister, is just as risky as criticising your agency," the guidance says.

"Equally, criticising your shadow Minister, the leader of the Opposition, or the relevant spokesperson from minor parties, is also likely to raise concerns about your impartiality and to undermine the integrity and reputation of your agency and the APS generally.

"The speed and reach of online communication means that material posted online is available immediately to a wide audience. It can be difficult to delete and may be replicated endlessly. It may be sent to, or seen by, people the author never intended or expected would see it."

Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Nadine Flood said the rules don't strike the right balance between protecting the impartiality of the public service and allowing everyday participation in democratic debate.

Mr Lloyd said News Corp reporting of the guidance on Monday had misrepresented its status. The new document was designed to "amplify existing guidance on the appropriate use of social media by employees," he said.

"The use of social media by employees requires discretion and judgement. For this reason it is important that all employers, including those in the APS, ensure their employees clearly understand the expectations of their behaviour when they use social media."

Canberra MP Gai Brodtmann said it was reasonable for the government to expect public servants to work professionally and impartially, in accordance with the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct.

"But threatening them with serious consequences for not deleting the social media posts of others is a step too far," she said.  

Employment law experts and Greens employment spokesman Adam Bandt spoke out against the guidance. 

Chair of the online advocacy group Digital Rights Watch, Tim Singleton Norton, said the guidance was significant overreach. 

"An effective and useful social media policy is something that every business, organisation and government department certainly needs," he said.  

"But they should be structured in a way that empowers individuals to exercise their right to freedom of speech within a framework that protects confidentiality or any conflict of interest."

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