Scouring the internet for opinions on the constitutional powers of the Commonwealth to regulate the media in the manner proposed in the Finkelstein report, I came across a submission to Finkelstein’s own inquiry from the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law, part of the University of New South Wales (website here).
The submission is dated 14 November 2011, and does not appear in the official list of submissions (as far as I can see, let me know if it is there) and deals precisely with the issue in question: namely, to what extent the Commonwealth has the power to regulate traditional and new media.
One question that must be asked immediately is why the submission is omitted from the list on the Inquiry web site. It was sourced via the Gilbert + Tobin Centre’s own index of submissions. There may be a reasonable explanation for this, but in the interests of transparency it should be stated.
UPDATE: The Inquiry responded to my email about this, stating:
“It is an oversight that the submission has not been published. The submission will be published shortly.”
The submission now appears on the consultation page.
Here are a few relevant extracts (my emphasis):
The Australian Constitution does not confer upon the Commonwealth any general power to regulate the all types of news media. Instead, the degree to which the Commonwealth can regulate in this area varies across mediums.
The Commonwealth has no direct head of legislative power with respect to the print media. However, the Commonwealth may nonetheless regulate the print media by virtue of indirect heads of power such as those relating to trade and commerce, taxation, corporations, external affairs and the Territories. The most significant of these is the corporations power – its potential application to news media regulation is expanded on below. In addition, the Commonwealth may regulate print media where doing so is incidental to the exercise of a direct head of power – for example, it can limit ownership and control of print media as a condition of radio and television broadcasting licenses issued by virtue of section 51(v).
THE INTERNET AND ONLINE JOURNALISM
The extent of Commonwealth power over matters concerning the internet, including journalism that is published online, is yet to be considered by the High Court. However, it is likely that the internet falls within the scope of section 51(v) either as a ‘telephonic’ or ‘other like service’, and that federal regulation could validly extend to the means of online communication, such as infrastructure (eg, the installation of fibre optic cables) and the conduct of internet service providers (ISPs). Other heads of power, such as those mentioned above, may also support Commonwealth regulation of online content. The potential for this is explored further below.
So far, then, the Commonwealth has the power to regular print media indirectly, through the corporations power, or incidentally to the postal and telegraphic power. It also appears the Commonwealth may regulate internet and online media through the means of communication. However, the following paragraph reveals that Finkelstein’s desire to regulate every blogger in Australia with more than 15,000 hits is beyond the powers of the Commonwealth:
To the extent that online journalism is carried out by constitutional corporations, it will be open to federal regulation via the corporations power in the same way the print journalism is. However, the extent of federal power is less certain where the online content is published by an entity that is not a constitutional corporation. A large number of individuals and bodies fall into this category, including any news outlets that operate as sole traders or partnerships, individual bloggers, and individuals posting on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
So where an organisation is a corporation, it can be regulated under the corporations power, but apart from that, there is no power to regulate their activities.
The extent of Commonwealth power to regulate online journalism of this nature is unclear. As noted above, it seems likely that section 51(v) authorises regulation of ISPs as bodies responsible for the transmission of online content. However, on current authority, it is doubtful that it extends to the regulation of the creators of content such as individual bloggers. Where news or other content appears online through a service such as Facebook which is controlled by a foreign or for-profit corporation, this could be regulated under the corporations power.
“Doubtful that it extends to the regulation of the creators of content such as individual bloggers” – this means that if Finkelstein’s regime were to be enacted, it would have to place the burden on ISPs to censor content from blogs which fell foul of the regulatory framework, since there would be no power to act against the blogs themselves (unless they were corporations, and let’s face it, few are).
Furthermore, the submission concludes:
The Commonwealth has extensive, unrealised potential to further regulate the Australian media, including the print media. The corporations power in particular provides a basis upon which to establish new regulation in this field. However, such regulation is subject to the limits of existing powers. In particular, the corporations power only extends to entities that are incorporated and operate as a financial, trading or foreign corporation. In the circumstances, it must be recognised that, although it has extensive power, the Commonwealth does not possess the legislative power to comprehensively regulate the media in Australia. The only means of achieving this would be via cooperation with the States.
And with New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland (any day now) controlled by Coalition state governments, they can kiss that idea goodbye.
Any such federal legislation presuming to regulate individual bloggers who did not fall within the corporations power would be ruled unlawful in any court challenge, and it appears that Finkelstein’s “tenuous connection with Australia” test is little more than fantasy.
Furthermore, Finkelstein’s “finger in the air” figure of 15,000 hits a year is meaningless in the above context, since the advice above points out that regulatory legality is dependent upon the legal status of the entity (corporation or not) rather than the size of its internet readership.
Surprisingly, nowhere in the report’s 400-odd pages does it acknowledge the vast constitutional mountain the regime would have to climb in order to be lawful against bloggers, which is set out clearly in the above submission. Maybe someone should let His Lordship know.