Australian civil servant quits in censorship protest

By on 31/08/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Krook says he was told he must either remove his blog post or face termination of his employment

An Australian civil servant has quit his job as a policy officer at the industry department after being threatened with the sack if he didn’t delete a blog post on how COVID-19 has benefited big tech companies. The department’s actions appear in conflict with civil servants’ right to make “public comment in an unofficial capacity”, which is set out in the APS Code of Conduct.

Josh Krook, who specialised in tech policy, penned the piece for the Oxford Political Review in April. In it, he argued that social isolation means that people are increasingly dependent on online platforms and noted that engagement with such platforms – and big tech companies’ revenues – have skyrocketed as a result of the pandemic.

The post was cynical about big tech. Krook wrote that such companies have been “pursuing the attention economy” and “seeking all our attention at all times”; that they “know everything about you”; and that replacing “human connection with technology has never felt so nakedly negative”. However, the post made no reference to any individual company or to the Australian government, nor did Krook identify himself as an Australian Public Service (APS) employee.

Three months after the post was published, Krook says he was called into a meeting with his manager and told he must either remove the post or face termination of his employment.  

“[My boss] said that the problem was that in talking about the big tech companies, we risked damaging the relationship the government has with the big tech companies and that when we go and do public-private partnerships, they could Google my name, find my article and then refuse to work with us,” Krook told the Guardian.

He said he was told that the post would have been fine had he been positive about big tech companies, and that all future public writing would have to be approved by a senior colleague.

He initially contacted the editor of the Oxford Political Review and asked that the post be removed, but later felt so uncomfortable with what he had been asked to do that he decided to quit his job and speak out about censorship. The post has since been republished.

Code of Conduct

Krook believes that he did not break the APS Code of Conduct and argues that the content of the blog was in no way political.

“I was very careful not to [criticise the government or government policy],” he told the Guardian. “The idea that you shouldn’t be able to criticise other companies, when you work with the government particularly, it doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t think there is a public interest case for that. Basically, I think I can criticise the big tech companies while remaining apolitical.”

As Krook further explained in the Oxford Political Review: “I resigned from my job in the government because I fundamentally disagree with the decision. The Australian government should not be involved in censoring personal blog posts. Public servants should be able to criticise private companies, including big tech companies. There is no conflict of interest. Freedom of speech is fundamental to a thriving, secular democracy.”

Section 6 of the APS Code of Conduct deals with “employees as citizens”. In a subsection on ‘Making public comment, including online’, it notes that “the engagement of APS employees in robust discussion is an important part of open government” and that APS employees may make “public comment in an unofficial capacity, so long as the comment is lawful and the employee makes it clear that they are expressing their own views”.

It suggests that federal employees may criticise the government, MPs, and their respective policies – none of which Krook did – so long as the criticism is not “so harsh or extreme… that the employee is no longer able to work professionally, efficiently or impartially”. It also implies that an employee may criticise an agency so long as that criticism is not “so strong” that it could “seriously disrupt the workplace” or “compromise public confidence in their agency or the APS”.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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