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.)

26 comments

  1. It's refreshing to see articles like this which cut right through all the hysteria and FUD and detail the situation for what it truly is. Keep up the good work!

    Comment by Matt on 3 March 2010 at 02:57
  2. Its things like this that make me feel ashamed of the human race =[

    I dont understand how that i at the age of 18, seem to be more intelligent then the men and women running the entire country.

    well maybe intelligent isnt the word, a whole lot less ignorant maybe sounds ebtter.

    Why cant we have people with experience in things managing government departments =[
    even a 13 year old script kiddy could make more educated decisions on policy relating to the internet, then mr stephen conroy.

    It just depresses me =[

    Great article btw. I agree with it 100%, and assumably so will 90% of the other people who read it.

    Comment by Chase on 3 March 2010 at 03:11
  3. Not to mention the person starting the tribute page has the power to delete any post on it. If you start a page, you are responsible for it, OK? No need for Facebook, let alone the PM, to get involved.

    Comment by Baswell on 3 March 2010 at 03:12
  4. There was also very little mention (a comment was made on Sunrise) of Facebook employees deleting photos and profiles of women posting photos of them breastfeeding their babies.

    Facebook says these photos are offensive and contain nudity, yet they try to tempt single men to sign up to dating services via sponsored ads of beautiful busty women. Talk about a double standard.

    There is a group on Facebook that is titled "If breastfeeding offends you, then put a blanket over your head". Photos are constantly removed from this group.

    And yet, breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world for a new mother to do. Many women breastfeed their children in public, and no one complains, and if they do, they usually get told off by others to shut up.

    Facebook definitely needs to take a serious look at how it operates, but it is not up to the Australian government to tell it what it can and can't do.

    Comment by Anestis on 3 March 2010 at 03:34
  5. I too have difficulty understanding the claim that being offended constitutes actual harm.

    There are already remedies available for this sort of thing, either informal (such as the page owner, or facebook, moderating the content) or formal (libel, slander and anti-discrimination laws). Much like the push for internet censorship, an internet ombudsman would be an ineffective and expensive waste of time for a problem that is arguably already being addressed.

    Comment by Stuart on 3 March 2010 at 04:08
  6. Good article.

    But just a comment - I think the anti-censorship campaign seriously needs to stop apologising for all the bad stuff on the web. Everyone knows it exists, and it tends to distract attention from the real message.

    IMHO it's far more important to keep the focus on the poor governance, scope creep and potential impacts on free speech further down the road.

    Comment by Simon on 3 March 2010 at 04:13
  7. @Simon: What do you mean? I don't think acknowledging the existence of nasty material is really "apologising" for it - especially when that is where the public attention is. I'm starting to think the best strategy is to say "yes, it's there, but so what?"

    Comment by Colin Jacobs on 3 March 2010 at 04:29
  8. If the Government is offended by Facebook, who knows what they have to say about 4chan.

    Comment by Craig on 3 March 2010 at 06:32
  9. Nothing, it's on the blacklist so no can say ANYTHING or they will be filtered.

    Comment by steve on 3 March 2010 at 06:52
  10. I don't see how an Internet Ombudsmen would operate or by what guidelines... The Trade Industry Ombudsmen relies on decades, if not centuries, of common law and statute regarding fair trading and the like, where actual goods or services are in dispute. As opposed to regulating freely-accessible, yet distasteful, webpages, which are already moderated.

    Comment by Ed on 3 March 2010 at 06:52
  11. Very nice! I particularly like the point about how one would expect a mature society to react.

    Comment by Andy Smith on 3 March 2010 at 07:37
  12. "Can anyone seriously imagine a government department, staffed by dozens of bureaucrats, investigating a tasteless Facebook page set up by a bored high-schooler?"

    Does this REALLY need to be asked? Of course I can seriously imagine that. They are bureaucrats, it's their job to essentially be redundant cogs in an ill-designed machine.

    Also the hallmark of the Rudd government this term has been running around telling people what to do and think, instead of actually doing something (that promised health reform would be nice, thanks.)

    Comment by Anthony on 3 March 2010 at 08:38
  13. The Rudd government's need for a scape goat has really reached ridiculous proportions and the internet just happens to be the most readily available and adaptable medium to serve as such. The media reports on this issue (and for that matter, the arguements Senator Conroy has made in support of his mandatory filter) read like the promotion for a bad horror movie : It's in your home, it's after your children, it will eat the moral fabric of your society alive, be afraid, be very afraid...or should I say be 'be outraged, be very outraged'?

    Comment by Jeanette on 3 March 2010 at 23:22
  14. Couldn't have said it any better, wd. I am often offended at the garbage presented on the news in the newspaper, and particularly offended by so called government annnoucements, payed for in tax funded dollars. That do little to solve the problem. ie. the one where they show three kids rolling an old lady at the ATM, how does that add prevent crime?????? However, when these things offend me I walk away or turn off the offensive crap. Furthermore, I've also receive plenty of spam in my letter box, is the government going to regulate that. I'm also plagued with calls from overseas trying to sell me crap I don't want. Is the government going to regulate that??? Of course not and I don't want them too, a reformed health care system now THAT would be a great advance and money put to good use. We might even have a system that allows CHOICE ie: natural medicines which prevent illness would be a great start instead of all the so called modern medications which often cause more harm than they cure. Why do we ship all our naturally grown products overseas and then wonder why some of our children have diabetes, obesity, allegies etc etc etc, School would be another avenue the money could be better spent, instead of ridiculous and fingerscanning to determine when our kids are there??? I've had my vent today and am now happy : )

    Comment by Corinne on 4 March 2010 at 02:14
  15. Didn't Kevin Rudd promise a leaner government? It seems like we're now looking down the barrel of yet more governmental scope creep. How about he actual keeps some promises for a change?

    Comment by Daniel on 4 March 2010 at 04:20
  16. @Daniel

    I am a terribly cynical person, but even I'm shocked by just how authoritarian the ALP has become. They make no effort to hide their intention to do only what they wish, without any consultation and in spite of any objection. They don't even bother trying to pretend there's any democracy at work here any more.

    I suppose the only thing I find more shocking than that is the apparent disconnect between online opinion and offline on this matter. Not only does there appear to be little outrage offline, there's pretty good evidence that the Government actually has supporters - this horrifies me. I wonder who these people are? I certainly hope I don't know or mix with their kind. Are these people just ignorant, or are they really that evil (sorry, there's no other way to describe people who wish to remove the rights of others IMO)? I find it baffling.

    Comment by Stuart on 4 March 2010 at 05:49
  17. I don't think the offline opinion is so hard to understand. If you don't understand the net - like offline people don't, obviously - then blocking, banning and classifying make more sense. "The net's like a TV with a keyboard, right?" All you will read about offline is the worst of the worst material that nobody could really be in favour of. The article never says, "Today, 250 million people had a pleasant interaction with Facebook pages, and also two other pages got defaced."

    What I'm getting at here is the sense of proportion, both in terms of the internet's positive aspects, and in terms of the impact the bad actually has on people's lives. The internet is actually about the *safest* way to interact with people, jerks or not. This sense of proportion is definitely missing in news reports, and they are what drive the pollies.

    Comment by Colin Jacobs on 4 March 2010 at 06:02
  18. I suppose I find it difficult to understand because even if you think the internet is the same as TV the principles and problems of censorship still apply. It is trivial (for me anyway) to see how universal monitoring and arbitrary censorship of a medium (regardless of what kind) with no oversight or balances is a bad idea - there is so much historical precedent for this kind of thing that I just cannot fathom how anyone could be aware of that and still be in favour of it (other than people directly advantaged by it, or fanatics). Nowhere and at no time in history has the kind of censorship proposed improved people's lives (more importantly, it doesn't actually work very well. That's something that also has solid historical precedent).

    Of the alternatives, I certainly prefer the idea of people's ignorance being the driver of their support.

    Comment by Stuart on 4 March 2010 at 06:36
  19. Has EFA considered writing a press release based on this article as I could see a few news/talk shows picking it up??

    "Is my facebook 'wall' suitable for prime ministerial comment?"

    "Running a country or running my tribute page?"

    .. it write it's self!

    @Baswell(3): completely agree and was wondering about this when I heard it on the news. If it was comments made on my group/wall I would remove them and forget about it.

    Comment by Treb on 4 March 2010 at 06:59
  20. The author was certainly right about the need to handle these things as adults. However, it seems that there are fewer adult and simply more eighteen-and-over electors as time goes by.

    Unfortunately among these are a cadre of arrogant misled reactionaries who are easily whipped into a frenzy and who simply don't care for facts or the (minute amount of) time required for rational analysis and sensible action concerning a given occurrence.

    In the case of the Facebook incident, it should have been abundantly clear that: 1. Adolescent (mentality) digital mischief was at play and 2. Australia doesn't get to decide what remains on a foreign corporation's servers - particularly ones parked in a sovereign state that also happens to be the pre-eminent global super-power. Thus to a reasonable person, the furore was just plain old embarrassing.

    Coupled with those individuals readily willing to forsake responsibility or too apathetic or unintelligent to recognise the consequences of embracing the nanny state, I have every fear that these sheep from the Today/tonight flock and their herders will usher in all manner of filters, ISPs made to play crime squad, ID card checks at the bus stop and who-knows-what-elese in the name of protecting the children and avoiding self and societal maturity.

    There's some "sinister" and "disgusting" right there.

    NB: Seeing "the Internet" not capitalised was distracting given the message and that it's the EFA speaking.

    Comment by Matt on 4 March 2010 at 07:26
  21. @Matt: We've been having an internal debate about the capitalisation of "Internet" and there has been some disagreement. I was won over to the small-i side, but I'm a slightly hesitant convert. 'Critics of the usage as a proper noun argue that other things that are unique yet distributed, such as "the power grid", "the telephone network", and even "the sky", are not considered proper nouns, and are thus not capitalized...' is what persuaded me.

    Comment by Colin Jacobs on 4 March 2010 at 07:40
  22. @Colin: I have always been from the Internet side and vehemently opposeed to those heathens who call it the internet. My view has always revolved on the fact that an internet is a technical term for an interconnecting network. The Internet is a label applied to a particular collection of internets. We could just as easily have called it Mary.

    I choose to call my local power grid Alan.

    Cheers

    Comment by David on 4 March 2010 at 18:35
  23. @David

    I was under the impression that "The Web" was the internet's given name (whereas internet is a generic term, The Web refers to only one thing).

    Comment by Stuart on 4 March 2010 at 20:56
  24. "I was under the impression that “The Web” was the internet’s given name"

    No, the WEB is short for the World Wide Web, the bit that we see on web pages and that most people know about these days, the bit goes through port 80 and is generally displayed using HTTP. The internet comprises of much, much more than just the web, FTP, SMTP, NNTP and many more are all systems that are part of the internet but not part of the "web."

    The filter is aimed squarely at the web and ignores the fact that the internet is comprised of systems that the filter doesn't even know about. When Rudd, Conroy et al say they are filtering the internet its rubbish, its like claiming they are filtering hoons off the roads by stopping all blue cars and checking them, while ignoring motor bikes and any car of another color.

    Comment by steve on 5 March 2010 at 01:23
  25. I agree that we do not need politicians to investigate every tasteless web page (just as we don't need them to investigate every pot-hole or broken footpath).

    What we do need is an update to privacy law.

    The gap in the law I speak of relates to a derogatory website set up by Andrew Pallant (daily telegraph link: http://tinyurl.com/ykpzndv ) which Police say they could not take action on. ACMA was silent on the issue.

    Victims need the ability to report a breach of privacy law (and I think this particular case should be a criminal one). The cops need to be able to arrest this guy, and either they or ACMA should have the power to force the site down. How an off-shore case would work, I'm not entirely sure, but perhaps a court order on the web designer (to be obeyed under penalty of Contempt of Court) would do it.

    Other things that may assist:
    + education (ACMA) for those intending to set up tribute pages: keep an eye on it all the time. Or use a front-end moderated system.
    + a tweak to defamation law
    + an ACMA how-to: "determining the service provider for a given website"
    (intended for other victims of other websites/internet activity to lodge formal requests for takedown - whether that be copyright violation, more defamation, or attacks originating from an IP address)

    Nick.

    ps. Note that the Daily Telegraph does not identify Mr Pallant's website, out of respect for victims.

    Comment by Kiwi Nick on 11 March 2010 at 04:36
  26. Hi Chase - without meaning to be offensive: "Why cant we have people with experience in things managing government departments ..." - people like your parents might have voted them into office? OR abstained from voting so that others could?

    Comment by CrisisMaven on 21 March 2010 at 18:23