Crackdown on Internet racism ill-thought out

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.