Public servants under social media surveillance

August 12, 2017

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has raised strong objections to moves by the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) to impose severe restrictions on public sector workers' personal use of social media. "It is completely unreasonable for a worker to face disciplinary action over a private email or something as benign as 'liking' a social media post," CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood said on August 7.

The comment followed the APSC’s update to its guidelines on public servants' use of social media. The new rules say that public sector employees may be held accountable for sending private emails or liking Facebook posts critical of government policy. They can even be disciplined for failing to delete critical posts made by other people online.

"If you 'like' something on a social media platform, it will generally be taken to be an endorsement of that material as though you'd created that material yourself," the APSC guidelines states. "'Sharing' a post has much the same effect."

Flood said the new guidelines were a serious concern: "If you email your mates and they put it on social media, then your job might be under threat.

"You name it, the government does something on it — so what are public servants allowed to say? What's left?".

Stephen Blanks from the NSW Council for Civil Liberties warned the new code of conduct could be constitutionally invalid. "It's made under the Public Service Act, and therefore if it is an unreasonable restriction on people's right to engage in political communication it will be invalid," he said.

Labor shadow employment minister Brendon O'Connor 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," he said.

Chair of the online advocacy group Digital Rights Watch, Tim Singleton Norton, said it 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."

This latest attack on the democratic rights of public servants follows a previous updating of social media guidelines by the Coalition government in September 2014. Then, staff of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet were pressured to report any workmate suspected of making comments critical of the government in any forum.

"If an employee becomes aware of another employee who is engaging in conduct that may breach this policy, there is an expectation that the employee will report this conduct to the department," the guidelines stated.

The previous year, former Immigration Department employee Michaela Banerji was sacked for using a pseudonymous Twitter account to criticise the government's refugee detention policies. Her appeal against the sacking was dismissed in the Federal Court in 2014.

The Banerji case and the latest APSC crackdown over the use of social media represent a serious threat to the basic civil liberties of federal public servants. The union movement and the community need to take a firm stand against these assaults on the freedoms of public sector workers, which endanger the democratic rights of all citizens.

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