The Road to Digital Serfdom: Australia’s Government Proposes ID Checks for Social Media, Dating Sites

“With government legislation, it’s rare that legislation is repealed (e.g., “hate speech” laws), rare that nonsensical or failed government programmes are closed down, and rare that governments decrease in size, power, and influence. For digital privacy, this natural cadence of ever increasing government power can only mean more legislation against citizens’ digital privacy and freedom; this cadence can never mean more digital privacy and freedom. This is the road to digital serfdom”.

It may be poor form to quote oneself, but I’m doing it nonetheless. Australia’s government has proposed to impose ID checks for social media and dating sites. For those not living in Australia, the government has a system called DVS that allows organisations — government departments, private companies, etc. — to verify Australian citizens and residents’ government-issued identification documents. These documents include passports, driver’s licenses, medicare cards, and other sources. When signing up to an organisation for a service, the service — based on government regulation — will ask for 100 “points of ID”. Each document is assigned a numeric value (e.g., passports are worth 70 points, driver’s licenses 40 points).

For example, if one buys a SIM card in Australia, one must give the SIM card vendor one’s passport details, driver’s license details, or any combination of allowed government-issued documents that scores more than 100 points. These details are then verified against DVS. This practice is common when opening a bank account, using Australia Post services, or interacting with the government.

The proposal to require social media sites and dating sites to require ID is strange for a number of reasons:

  • Apps such as Tinder require users to sign up with a mobile phone number. In Australia, SIM cards cannot be activated without 100 points of ID, and therefore there is already traceability of who each Tinder user is in Australia. The proposal would have no impact.
  • Some social media companies have no legal entity in Australia. How the Australian government can force social media companies outside Australia to comply is an open question. Probably by targeting app stores. Obviously I’m not a lawyer.

As I previously wrote, the narrative around governments placing a backdoor in encryption products/services has shifted, and this narrative — or similar narratives — is rolled out once a decade by politicians, bureaucrats, and the media. We have moved away from “for your safety” to “misinformation”, “incitement of violence”, “harassment”, and “bullying”. Laws already exist to prevent many of these issues, and I’m not downplaying their seriousness. An example of the new narrative exists in the eSafety Commission’s position paper on end-to-end encryption, which should be renamed to “Reasons Why the Government Must be able to Read Your Private Communications”. Ironically apps such as Signal and Threema were created because of government over-reach detailed by Edward Snowden. The government is reacting to a problem that it created. This irony seems to be lost on many people.

I’m not going to cover the obvious issues with the government proposal. Many news organisation are already making these points. The obvious issues include limiting whistle blowers, reducing freedom of speech online, vexatious claims, and activists targeting people’s employment (e.g., “cancel culture”).

The point that I want to make is the following: It’s difficult to see the future problems/uses with government regulations/laws/systems/whatever. Their original purpose often has utility and good intentions. However, incentives drive people’s behaviour, and politicians, bureaucrats, and the media are never happy with the status quo; no one wants to stand still… we all want to progress, and hence the purpose of regulations/laws/systems/whatever will always change over time, often for the worse.

Consider your own job. Do you want to maintain the status quo? Or do you want to improve things? Improvement — or at least attempts at improvement — is the default human experience. Changes over time include both the scope (i.e., integrating DVS with other government systems) and including more organisations under the regulation.

DVS was introduced in 2014, and it now has over 1000 private companies using it. Today the proposal is to use DVS for social media sites and dating sites. Tomorrow the proposal will be for secure messaging apps, your local footy club, religious organisations, or even your local pub.