If you're a politician, and something nasty is brought to your attention, what do you do? The best and sometimes only tool in your toolbox is the one you reach for. The tool is this: to pass a law banning it. Therefore, although it's always discouraging, a story like this one, is far from unusual or surprising. "Laws to tackle racism on the Internet are set to be beefed up," it announces.

"Authorities warn they are often powerless to act against online content, which is responsible for almost one in five racial vilification complaints," it continues, then:

Attorney-General Robert McClelland has ordered the Australian Human Rights Commission to conduct a sweeping review of ''arrangements for dealing with racist material on the internet''.

''While freedom of expression is one of the most fundamental rights, this is not at the expense of the rights of people, while using the Internet, to be treated with equality, dignity and respect,'' Mr McClelland told The Sunday Age.

Certainly, nobody likes hate speech. But these words, by our Attorney-General, are concerning. Firstly, they show a terrible lack of  consideration of the complexities of the issue, and secondly, they demote freedom of speech in a significant way.

Banning racist content on the Internet might seem like a good idea on the surface, but you don't have to dig very deep before the idea becomes problematic. The existing laws throughout the states grapple with some thorny issues. How do you define hate speech? "Kill all Jews" certainly counts, but what about "Liberate Palestine"? Is Holocaust revisionism hate speech? What about an honestly held  opinion on the undesirability of immigration from a certain part of the world? Does this inspire "hatred, contempt or severe ridicule" against a group of persons? These ambiguities will become more problematic if a new national law is introduced that applies to every blog on the Internet.

The proposal also shows a considerable lack of understanding about the realities of censoring the Internet. The Internet, it should go without saying, is global. Billions of web pages are out there, far beyond the reach of Australian lawmakers, and reflecting a multitude of different cultural values. Content hosted in Australia can be removed, but it can just as easily be moved or copied overseas by its authors. It is therefore questionable whether any law could have a meaningful impact.

The comments by the AG and others pay lip service to freedom of speech, but their words lack conviction. Freedom of speech is fine, but "not at the expense of the rights of people... to be treated with equality, dignity and respect." That sounds like a noble sentiment, but are we certain that freedom of speech shouldn't include the right to be mocking, disrespectful and offensive? There are definitely limits to freedom of speech that we can all agree on. But the above comments seem more like a dismissal of free-speech concerns than a debate of their merits.

We need to ask ourselves, is this the best way to tackle racism in Australian society? Is racist web content a cause of racist attitudes, or merely a symptom of it? In our view, other, more substantive and community-based policies are needed if we want to see a real improvement in this area.

8 comments

  1. such a "law" will justify more vague sites placed on a ban list.and if anyone complains they will be told"this is illegal content"

    Comment by thomas vesely on 23 February 2010 at 19:30
  2. Not only that but is also as unenforceable as Michael Atkinsons law banning anonymous political comments of forums, blogs and social networks leading up to and during the coming election.

    Source - http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/in-depth/labor...

    Cry Freedom

    Comment by Cry Freedom on 23 February 2010 at 21:14
  3. Obviously racism is bad, and this is more of a digression, but this is further proof why barely anyone in the world chooses Australia to host their content. We have Internet censorship laws which serve no purpose (people will just go to another website for what they want, or even the same site which moved overseas), provide no benefits for anyone, stifle innovation, and are developed based on moral panic and desires for control, over common sense.

    If the Internet censorship system gets up and running, which we're all hoping doesn't happen, we can expect many more of these articles to come. There's a lot of difference of opinion in Parliament of where the censorship line should be drawn, and nobody will ever be happy with the status quo.

    Comment by Ben on 24 February 2010 at 07:28
  4. Im not sure how to draw EFA’s attention to this so im posting it here..
    This morning on Sunrise (channel 7), there was a lot of talk about the recent vandalism of some facebook pages and the lack of content control policed by Facebook. They interviewed a politician (missed his name) who was suggesting the introduction of an ‘internet ombudsman’ who could receive complaints about a website and action them..

    Sounds like a gate-way policy towards internet censorship to me.. I’d like to see EFA standing up and making an educated point of view, rather than these knee jerk reactions from politicians.

    Comment by treb on 24 February 2010 at 16:46
    • Yeah, we're aware of that and I've spoken to some reporters.

      Our work is never done. :(

      Comment by Colin Jacobs on 24 February 2010 at 18:57
  5. Our politicians have surely been briefed by enough officials to know that censoring the internet won't work and is a waste of resources.

    I think they persist because they just want to be *seen* as having 'done something' about the 'problem'.

    If they want to stop hate speech, the best way is to promote tolerance. Banning it won't change anyone's mind. Unfortunately education is not a short-term fix, and unattractive to people who can't see further than the next election.

    Comment by Simon on 26 February 2010 at 11:05
  6. Not too long before the internet existed some environmentalists proposed restricting immigration on environmental grounds. They were immediately shrieked at for being racist. This went on every time they raised the issue. Eventually they shut up. Now whether you agree with the environmental angle or not, the point is arguable without reference to the origin of any immigrants. Maybe I'm paranoid but I can see the anti-racist agenda being used to silence anyone on the net whose views don't suit some portion of the population.

    Comment by Ken on 3 March 2010 at 04:24
  7. supports hate speeches on cultures, races, and relgions, really tired of trying to educate ignorant people

    Comment by maza on 1 April 2010 at 17:23