Expect more spy drones if ‘ag gag’ laws introduced

Animal rights groups have been using drone technology to monitor farmers’ compliance with welfare laws. Under US style “ag gag” laws any footage taken could not be distributed. flickr/eschipul

The “remotely operated Hexacopter drone” may sound like something out of the latest Hollywood sci-fi, but this new technology is about to take centre stage in Australia’s animal welfare debate. Drones have become the new weapon of choice for animal rights activists in their war on animal cruelty.

Disillusioned by the performance of responsible authorities, Animal Liberation NSW has taken to the public airspace. In a recent investigation, the animal rights group flew a copter drone, fixed with a high definition video camera, over an egg farm in Dora Creek, NSW. The group was attempting to verify the authenticity of the facility’s free-range status with the intention of passing the footage on to Australia’s competition and consumer regulator.

Animal Liberation’s Executive Director, Mark Pearson, said the drone technology would also be used to monitor live export facilities and cattle feedlots to see if they complied with animal welfare law.

This use of drones certainly raises a number of complex legal, ethical and political questions. Unsurprisingly, such actions have attracted the ire of farmers who feel their property and privacy rights are being infringed. Under current Australian law however, these concerns may be difficult to translate into legal action.

The rights of a land owner to the air space above the land extends only to the height necessary for the ordinary use and enjoyment of the land. Providing drones remain at a reasonable height and don’t interfere with farming operations, their presence will be unlikely to constitute trespass. Further, claims of privacy infringement are unlikely to be recognised by Australian law, especially in response to the filming of commercial farming operations.

While there may be other legal bases to challenge the use of drones, relying on private law suits may not be necessary. Several Australian politicians have said they would support new laws aimed at prohibiting unauthorised filming of agricultural operations. While Liberals Senator Chris Back is reportedly drafting legislation, there is no imminent threat of such laws being introduced. But it is instructive to look at the use of these laws in the US.

Legislation dubbed “ag gag” laws by the American media, has been proposed in a number of US states. As well as banning unauthorised filming, many of the laws make it an offence to publish or distribute the footage obtained.

However, very few of the ag gag bills proposed in the US have passed the scrutiny of state legislatures. Of the 20 bills introduced since 2011, only three have been enacted into law, and all 11 bills proposed this year have since been defeated.

US style “ag gag” laws would prevent the distribution of images, such as this, uncovering cases of animal cruelty. flickr/traveling.lunas

Opposition to the laws has been vigorous, and not just from the animal rights lobby. Reflecting the broad range of affected interests, organisations representing civil liberties, the media and free speech, worker’s rights, environmental protection, consumers, and public health have all spoken out against the proposals. In the few jurisdictions where ag gag bills have passed, a law suit challenging their constitutionality is currently underway.

Despite the overwhelmingly negative reception the proposals have received in the US, Australian Senator Back remains undeterred. But Senator Back and other supporters of the legislation should consider whether such laws will be in the best interests of Australian farmers and livestock industries.

To explore this question, it is helpful to consider the reasons why ag gag bills were so vigorously opposed in the US. Public debates reveal concerns about the adequacy of government inspection and regulatory oversight. Objectors demand greater levels of transparency in food production, particularly relating to the treatment of livestock.

Ag gag legislation does not address these concerns; in fact, it accentuates them. Such legislation is misplaced as it attempts to address the symptoms of an unmet desire for greater transparency. It will generate further suspicion and distrust within the community about livestock production practices and will damage the reputation of Australian agriculture.

If farmers really want to stop activists from spying on their properties they should open their doors – deprive the activists of something to expose. Attempts to reduce transparency and stifle public debate will inevitably backfire. It will only harden the resolve of activists and may provide legitimacy to their actions.

The long term interests of livestock industries will be better served by strategies aimed at building trust within the community through transparent operations. Of course, this is unlikely to be effective if livestock industries cannot point to genuine efforts to improve animal welfare in the required areas.

The National Farmers’ Federation 2013-2020 Blueprint for Australian Agriculture appears to recognise this. It acknowledges that for the agricultural “sector to succeed in building trust within the community in relation to the way food is produced and distributed, it needs to demonstrate sound and improving practices and it needs to use better avenues to communicate these improvements.”

Ag gag legislation is the complete antithesis to this objective. It will not prevent activists from attempting to expose animal cruelty. Quite the contrary. Should ag gag be introduced in Australia, I think farmers can expect to be visited by more spying drones.