Government: Don't feed the trolls

There are jerks on the internet. Given how many jerks there are off the internet, this shouldn’t surprise anyone. (I’m willing to bet that the first cave painting was barely dry before a jerk came along and drew an oversized penis on one of the animals.)

Nevertheless, the offensive defacement last week of two Facebook pages, tributes to slain Queensland children Elliott Fletcher and Trinity Bates, became a minor flap in the media. Words like “sinister”, “disgusting” and “sick” quickly appeared in various articles.

Where an outraged media go, politicians quickly follow. Barely one news cycle after the story about tasteless Facebook pranks, Senator Nick Xenophon has proposed an “online ombudsman” to “deal with such incidents”, an idea tentatively endorsed by the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Queensland premier Anna Bligh wrote to Facebook angrily demanding an explanation.

This is the cue for tired cyber-libertarians to again point out the internet is global and dynamic and instructing the Australian civil service to police it might be a touch impractical. But this cycle — internet nastiness, media attention, government condemnation — is repeating itself with depressing regularity. (The mandatory internet filter and proposed crackdown on racist material online are still current news.)

Can anyone seriously imagine a government department, staffed by dozens of bureaucrats, investigating a tasteless Facebook page set up by a bored high-schooler? This appears to be exactly what our leaders are suggesting, and it’s easy to point out the flaws in such an idea. But has debating these schemes on their merits become counter-productive?

Let’s take a step back for a moment. Perhaps what we should really be discussing is whether this is an appropriate topic for lawmakers to tackle at all. The internet is a positive part of our daily lives — nobody is seriously contending that it is so broken that it needs the Australian Labor Party to fix it. When did we become so over-sensitive that a dodgy web page requires intervention by the premier, Senate and prime minister?

Certainly, the tawdriness of these pages is depressing, even outrageous, and few could dispute that. Its newsworthiness is at best arguable. So how did it become a legislative priority? Given that no serious lasting harm or economic damage can be caused by such a defaced web page, how could one seriously argue this is a matter suitable for prime ministerial comment?

Moreover, it says something unflattering about our national character that, when something like this comes to light, we turn at once to our politicians to save us. This isn’t a trait one would associate with a mature society confident in its place in the world. It’s a trait one would more likely associate with mollycoddled children.

The stereotypical view of Americans holds them to be forever demanding “offensive” things be taken down, banned, censored or zero-toleranced, and one might wonder if the same trend is happening here — where we have no Bill of Rights to stem the tide. Being offended isn’t like being physically assaulted. Like most people who read the news in this day and age, I’m offended pretty much all the time, but I can get over it and still have a productive day. Those that can’t shouldn’t be setting the bar for regulation of the media.

I submit then that next time a web page is defaced, a racist game is published, or somebody is upset by a cyber-stalker, let’s handle it calmly like adults. Suck it up.

The appropriate place for complaints is the host of the content, who may or may not take it down, as Facebook promptly did last week. Let’s leave the politicians out of it. I don’t care what the PM thinks about Facebook any more than I want his comments on a TV turkey slap. They have more important things to worry about.

(Originally published in Crikey.)