Australia Must Have Zero Tolerance For Online Hatred

via Flickr - Michael Matti
via Flickr – Michael Matti

This article was written for an Australian audience. It originally appeared on The Australian Independent Media Network, a major independent journalism outlet in Australia. The article can be viewed on The AIMN here.

What’s interesting to note is that most of the Australian commenters agreed with my views in the article, and comments that opposed the article only started to appear after the article was shared on various American websites.  This simply proves everything that I’ve said to be correct: Australia is a culture based on fundamental human rights, civil liberties, and individual freedoms, while America is perhaps the most anti-human rights country in the world.  The fact that Australians agreed with this article while Americans reacted angrily to it simply proves my point.  Only in America would attempting to defend basic human rights provoke such an angry and hostile reaction.  The views that I express in this article represent the views of the overwhelming majority of Australians.  Are Americans honestly prepared to tell 23,786,400 people that their views are wrong?  America is the only country in the world where human rights legislation outlawing hate speech does not exist.  Perhaps Americans are, in fact, the ones who are wrong.  Just because America sees no need for essential human rights does not mean that the rest of the world should agree with them.  The world does not revolve around America, despite how much Americans might think it does.  With that said, I am still highly committed to changing American culture into a more human rights-friendly culture, hence why I have campaigned heavily for the introduction of hate speech legislation and an American Human Rights Commission in the US.  The entire reason that I moved to America to work with human rights organisations in the US is mainly because the US needs human rights activism far more than Australia does.

Here in Australia, it’s just common sense that freedom of speech doesn’t give anyone the right to offend, insult, humiliate, intimidate, vilify, incite hatred or violence, be impolite or uncivil, disrespect, oppose human rights, spread lies or misinformation, argue against the common good, or promote ideas which have no place in society.  We all learned this in school, and it’s not something that’s even up for debate.  Hate speech is not free speech, as the oft-repeated saying goes.  Freedom of speech is something that comes with responsibility and it has to be balanced against other human rights, such as the human rights to dignity and respect.  This is something that more or less everyone here agrees on, including libertarians.  Journalists and human rights activists are the biggest supporters of our hate speech laws, but the laws have universal support among all sections of Australian society.  Freedom of speech is a core Australian value, but it’s not the only value we have.  As Australians living in a society built on diversity and multiculturalism, we simply refuse to tolerate any forms of racism or hatred.  The need to protect vulnerable minorities from all forms of hate speech is something that practically all Australians firmly agree with (aside from a few racist bigots who want to incite hatred against vulnerable minorities as “free speech,” of course).  Our courts have ruled multiple times that it doesn’t matter whether your statements are “true” or “balanced” or not – if the statements are likely to paint vulnerable minorities in a negative light and/or incite hatred against vulnerable minorities, then those statements are illegal in Australia, as they should be.

Our federal Racial Discrimination Act makes it illegal to say things which may offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate vulnerable minorities.  This law has been successfully used to convict right-wing hatemongers like Andrew Bolt.  When the Abbott government recently proposed watering down our federal laws against hate speech (they wanted to replace the words “offend,” “insult,” and “humiliate” with the word “vilify”), it outraged the entire country, and human rights groups like Amnesty International Australia and the Human Rights Law Centre launched a highly successful campaign to force the government to back down.  Across the country, people held protests against the proposal to weaken our federal hate speech protections, and polls found that almost everyone in the country was staunchly opposed to any proposals to weaken legal protections against hate speech (according to one Fairfax poll, at least 88% of Australians agreed that it should always be illegal to offend, insult, or humiliate minorities, and all other polls showed similar results).  Every single human rights group in the country spoke out against the proposals to weaken federal protections against hate speech, and even right-wing libertarians were outraged that anyone would propose watering down laws against hate speech.  In the end, we won.  Not only did the Abbott government abandon its plans to weaken our federal protections against hate speech, but they recently announced that they would actually be strengthening legal protections against hate speech.  The people of Australia successfully showed the Tony Abbott administration that we simply won’t stand for any attempts to water down laws against racial hatred.

Australia is fully dedicated to protecting the basic human rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised segments of society, including their rights to dignity, honour, respect, and non-discrimination, and their rights to not be subjected to hatred.  Unfortunately, across the Atlantic, there is a web of hatred and intolerance being spun online – and this web is easily accessible to Australian citizens.  In Australia, the Australian Human Rights Commission does its best to prosecute and remove all forms of hate speech on the Internet, and the Racial Discrimination Act can be used to seize anyone’s Internet records if they’re suspected of hate speech.  But, in the US, there is no human rights culture whatsoever.  To this very day, the US refuses to pass any kind of human rights legislation, and hate speech remains completely legal there.  There are absolutely no laws of any kind against racial vilification in the US.  To people in a human rights-based culture like Australia, this sounds hard to believe.  After all, even our most dedicated free speech absolutists still firmly agree that racial vilification and incitement to hatred should always be illegal.  Even George Brandis himself – the far-right ultra-libertarian who wanted to water down our federal hate speech laws – said that racial vilification, Holocaust denial, and offensive opinions which weren’t participating in a public discussion should always be illegal.  George Brandis is by far the most extreme free speech fundamentalist in Australia, but even he agrees that racial vilification and incitement to hatred – including Holocaust denial – must always be legally punished.  Brandis’s proposals were universally seen as recklessly removing all limitations on “freedom of speech” at the expense of vulnerable minorities, but they still included at least SOME limitations on racial vilification.  In the US, there are no laws against any kind of racial vilification whatsoever.  Racial vilification goes against the very core values of this nation, hence why it remains so highly illegal.  Freedom of speech does NOT give one the right to oppose the values of the nation.  Racism is NOT what modern-day Australia is all about, and it has absolutely no place whatsoever in modern Australian society.

There are two sides to the free speech debate in Australia: the people who believe that all offensive or insulting speech should always be illegal (the vast majority of Australians), and the people who believe that only racial vilification or incitement to hatred should be illegal (the far-right, ultra-libertarian free speech fundamentalists).  There isn’t a single person in Australia who thinks that there should be NO legal restrictions on hate speech or vilification, so it’s hard for us to believe that, in 2015, there is actually an advanced country where hate speech remains completely legal.  But it’s entirely true.  In the US, there are no laws whatsoever against any kind of hate speech, and even the most severe forms of racial vilification and incitement to hatred are allowed.  The United States even protects the right to advocate violence against vulnerable minorities as “free speech.”  In fact, even hate speech which isn’t part of any kind of public discussion is protected as “free speech” in the US.  This is absolutely unfathomable to Australians, as even ultra-libertarian George Brandis’s much-maligned proposal to weaken our federal hate speech laws still included protections against hate speech that wasn’t part of a public discussion.  George Brandis himself said that, for example, posting Holocaust denial on the Internet or chanting racist slogans at sports stadiums would remain illegal under his proposals since they weren’t contributing to any kind of public discussion.  Most Australians believed that George Brandis’s proposals went way too far in allowing racist hate speech, but his proposals didn’t go anywhere NEAR as far as what’s allowed in the US.  In Australia, racist speech is never acceptable, even when it’s part of a public discussion – the Australian people made this very clear to Brandis.  But, in the US, racist speech is ALWAYS allowed, even when it’s NOT part of a public discussion.  Those racist chants by University of Oklahoma students would still be highly illegal under George Brandis’s ultra-libertarian proposals, but they’re actually completely legal in the US – and American so-called “progressives” actually AGREE that this kind of racial vilification should be completely legal.  In fact, I’ve actually had “progressive” Americans tell me that Brandis’s outrageous proposals “didn’t go nearly far enough” in protecting “freedom of speech.”  Yes, these people are genuinely considered “progressive” in the US.  It absolutely boggles the mind how unbelievably backwards the US is when it comes to basic human rights.

Human rights groups, the UN, and the international community have demanded that the US pass laws against hate speech for several decades now, but the country steadfastly refuses to do so.  There simply isn’t any human rights culture whatsoever in the US, and even America’s so-called “progressives” still seem to oppose the creation of anti-hate speech legislation, citing “freedom of speech.”  In Australia, it would be absolutely laughable for someone to call themselves a “progressive” while opposing laws against hate speech.  After all, even our far-right nationalists still support laws against hate speech.  You simply cannot call yourself a progressive in Australia unless you support the outlawing of all un-progressive speech.  One of the most fundamental goals of the Australian progressive movement is ensuring that anyone who voices un-progressive ideas is aggressively prosecuted, and this is something that all Australian progressives firmly agree with.  But, in the US, “progressives” actually believe that hate speech and even severe racial vilification should be protected as “free speech.”  In fact, even minorities in the US still tend to oppose anti-hate speech laws which are designed to protect them.  I recently had an African-American tell me that it was “ridiculous” to prosecute people for making racist comments.  Minorities in the US really don’t seem to understand the harmful effects that hate speech has on them and the very real danger that it places them in.  To people in civilised countries like Australia, it’s just terribly sad to see how brainwashed the people of America have become.  Americans have been conned into thinking that freedom of speech means the freedom to say anything (especially if you have money).  They genuinely believe that freedom of speech gives people the right to spew hatred, racially vilify vulnerable minorities, argue against the common good, and oppose human rights.  It’s profoundly sickening to anyone in a human rights-based culture like ours, but, to Americans, it’s perfectly normal, and there is unfortunately nothing that we can do about it.  We’ll never be able to change the deeply backwards way that Americans (including American so-called “progressives”) think.

America’s refusal to crack down on hate speech – in clear defiance of international human rights law – makes it very difficult for other countries to protect human rights online.  Civilised countries all have laws against online hate speech and government Human Rights Commissions to prosecute online hatred, but it’s little use when the US – which, unfortunately, still controls most of the Internet – refuses to protect basic human rights.  Not only does America not have any kind of American Human Rights Commission to prosecute online hatred, but they don’t even have any kind of Human Rights Act making hate speech illegal in the first place (by failing to outlaw hate speech, the US is explicitly violating international human rights law).  There are millions and millions of hate sites run out of the US, and Human Rights Commissions in civilised countries would seem powerless to stop them.  Despite countless human rights organisations telling the US that it needs to crack down on hate speech – especially online hate speech – America continues to protect hatred and intolerance as “free speech,” which means that these hate sites are allowed to continue to spread bigotry and discrimination around the world with impunity.

Well, if the US isn’t going to stand up for human rights, then it’s time for civilised countries to take stronger measures to protect fundamental human rights online.  What I propose is something called a Human Rights Online Act.  This Act would not only make it a severe criminal offence on the federal level to publish, distribute, promote, or access hate speech online, but would also implement a federal Internet filtering system to protect Australians from being exposed to hate sites run out of the US.  The Internet filter should block access to all hate sites, and anyone who tries to access any hate sites should be sent to gaol, much like people who access child pornography.  In keeping with other human rights legislation in Australia – like the proposed Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill, which was unfortunately narrowly defeated by the efforts of the far-right – anyone accused of offending, insulting, humiliating, or intimidating other people should be required to prove their innocence or be declared guilty automatically, and this should also apply for anyone accused of publishing, distributing, promoting, or accessing online hatred.  The principle of guilty until proven innocent is the only principle that really works when it comes to cracking down on hate speech, and every human rights group in Australia supported the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill declaring people guilty of hate speech until proven innocent (in fact, most human rights activists felt that the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill actually didn’t go nearly far enough).  Ergo, I propose something like the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill be passed with special emphasis on combating online hatred.  Someone needs to protect vulnerable minorities from being exposed to this toxic hatred, and, if the US won’t, then Australia needs to.

Internet filtering should not just filter out hate speech.  It should filter out anything that violates human rights and/or poses a danger to society.  Our Australian Classification Board bans any film, video game, book, or other form of media if it offends against community standards, contains content harmful to society, or is demeaning to human dignity.  If a book, film, or video game contains content that degrades human dignity, then it therefore constitutes a violation of human rights, since human dignity is a fundamental human right that all civilised governments are tasked with upholding.  Unfortunately, the Internet has made it difficult for the Australian Classification Board to do its job.  In the US, the government cannot ban any movie, book, or video game, no matter how dangerous, harmful to society, or degrading to human dignity.  As such, certain people have taken advantage of this in order to sell their disgusting products to Australia through a digital format, where Australian Customs will be powerless to stop them.  When the Australian Classification Board banned the vile computer game Postal 2, the game’s distributors proceeded to set up an online store for selling the game digitally to Australian customers – and nothing could be done about it aside from prosecuting anyone who bought the game, which would be very difficult to do without comprehensive Internet filtering of the sort that I’m proposing.  Thanks to the US and its lack of human rights legislation, not only does hate speech and vilification flow into Australia through the Internet, but so does obscenity, rape porn, gratuitous violence, and other filth that has absolutely no place in a civilised society.

Unlike in the US, Australia has human rights-based press regulation and rules about who can own media outlets, in order to prevent right-wing hatemongers from gaining too much influence.  Freedom of speech should never allow anyone to oppose human rights or attempt to undermine progressive policies, and right-wing hate outlets like the ones run by Rupert Murdoch have been able to oppose progress and manipulate public opinion against the common good in this country for far too long now.  During the Finkelstein Inquiry, Australian progressives and human rights activists unveiled rules that would require all blogs to register with the government.  I believe that this proposed law should be revived as part of the Human Rights Online Act.  All Australian websites should be required to register with the Australian Human Rights Commission in order to ensure strict compliance with human rights.  If any websites contain content that opposes human rights, then they should be shut down immediately and their owners sent to gaol.  In addition, all Australian websites should be required to promote human rights.  Any website found to inadequately promote human rights should be shut down by the Australian Human Rights Commission, and the owner fined or sent to gaol.  Like the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill, this would effectively shut down the Murdoch media empire and all other right-wing hate outlets.

Freedom of speech is the bedrock of any democratic society, and I cannot possibly stress enough how important it is that we have the inalienable right to freedom of speech.  Freedom of speech is the fundamental right from which all other rights flow, and all societies need to uphold freedom of speech to the maximum possible extent.  However, freedom of speech is not the only right that we have.  People have the right to be free from racial vilification as well, and this also applies to the Internet.  Hate speech online not only has the potential to devastate the most vulnerable and marginalised segments of our society, but it has also been proven to incite hatred, violence, and murder.  When Frazier Glenn Miller shot up a Jewish community centre last year, it didn’t start with the shooting.  Miller had been an active member of numerous online hate communities for years.  The same goes for Anders Behring Breivik, who went on the deadliest shooting spree in recorded history, targeting minorities and “cultural Marxists” in Norway after being an active member of hate sites run out of the US (like all civilised countries, hate speech is highly illegal in Norway, but they are powerless to stop their citizens from accessing American hate sites).  Acts of racial violence always start with words, and the only way to prevent them from happening is to crack down on all forms of hate speech.  The people who promoted racist, Islamophobic hate speech online are every bit as responsible for the Norway massacre as Breivik himself was.  The massacre in Norway is a strong warning for anyone who thinks that racial vilification is acceptable.  Was it “free speech” when white supremacist terrorist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 innocent people in Norway based on racial hatred?  Was it “free speech” when Frazier Glenn Miller shot three innocent people to death at a Jewish community centre?  Was it “free speech” when the Nazis killed twelve million people in concentration camps?  The US might think so, but Australia certainly doesn’t.

International human rights law (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) makes it very clear: all nations are required to outlaw all forms of hate speech, including any ideas based on racial superiority or hatred.  The United Nations has emphasised many times that cracking down on online hate speech is a crucial aspect of the battle against intolerance in the modern era, and the UN requires all nations to prosecute online hate speech along with all other forms of hate speech.  Online hatred is a scourge that threatens to tear apart the very fabric of our beautiful and harmonious multicultural society.  We cannot force the United States to respect basic human rights – after all, not only does the country still refuse to ban hate speech, but it also still doesn’t even have universal healthcare – but we CAN take a stand against online hatred in our own country.  While it’s important to oppose Internet censorship and ensure that any measures to crack down on online hate speech do not interfere with legitimate freedom of speech, Australia cannot continue to stand by while an ocean of online hatred from the United States continues to flow into this country.

Online hate speech coming from the US does affect Australians, including the most vulnerable and marginalised members of Australian society.  Recently, a disgusting American neo-Nazi website called The Daily Stormer published a series of articles racially and religiously vilifying Muslim Australian human rights activist Mariam Veiszadeh, and encouraging others to do the same.  Mariam Veiszadeh is a human rights activist and lawyer who has been at the forefront of expanding Australia’s legal protections against hate speech, and she does not hesitate to take to court anyone who spouts racism, Islamophobia, or other forms of hate speech.  But, since The Daily Stormer is a US-based website, the site took full advantage of America’s lack of human rights laws, saying that there was “absolutely nothing that Mariam can do” to stop them.  That same website has published numerous articles racially vilifying other Australians, including Jews, Arabs, Pacific Islanders, Indigenous people, and more.  But even that is nowhere near as bad as sites like Chimpout, an American website dedicated entirely to mocking and celebrating the deaths and murders of innocent black people (including Indigenous Australians).  The content on Chimpout is some of the most vile, extreme racial hatred and vilification imaginable.  Users of the site will post news articles about, for example, black babies being killed, and they will celebrate those murders as “niggers being made good” (in the view of the site’s users, “the only good nigger is a dead one”).  When a Torres Strait Islander woman in Cairns killed her eight children, the site’s users celebrated it and said that she was “doing a huge favor for Aussie taxpayers.”  Can anyone with a conscience honestly believe that this sort of behaviour is acceptable?  Can any sane, reasonable individual honestly believe that this sort of vile, hateful, inhuman filth has any place whatsoever in society?  This sort of disgusting vilification may be acceptable to Americans, but it’s DEFINITELY not acceptable to Australians.

Hate speech – whether in real life or on the Internet – has absolutely no place in Australian society, and it has absolutely no place in any modern democracy, for that matter.  Laws exist to enforce acceptable behaviour and, if something is unacceptable to the vast majority of the population (which bigotry certainly is), then there is absolutely no logical reason why it shouldn’t also be illegal.  Bigotry is illegal for the exact same reason that robbing a bank is illegal: it is completely unacceptable behaviour.  Freedom of speech does not allow anyone to say things which the vast majority of people find to be completely unacceptable.  Bigotry may be acceptable to Americans, but it is most certainly not acceptable to Australians.  Freedom of speech should never be a license to hurt people, to undermine progress, to abuse human rights, or to be a right-wing bigot.  It’s time for the Australian Human Rights Commission to begin filtering the Internet to protect Australians from the insidious online hatred that flows like an ocean out of the United States.  There can be zero tolerance for intolerance, and human rights institutions in this country must be willing to go to any lengths in order to combat the toxic forces of hatred and bigotry.  Hateful, hurtful, insulting, or offensive speech can never be “free” when one considers the devastating cost it has on society and on its victims.  Hate speech certainly isn’t “freedom” to Indigenous Australians and other highly vulnerable, marginalised members of our society.  Rather than silencing dissent, outlawing hate speech assists dissent and prevents the bullying of groups into silence.  Hate speech is itself a form of censorship, as it silences the voices of minorities – marginalized groups who are already widely denied a voice in society.  Minorities cannot speak out freely when they are bullied and intimidated into silence by hate speech.  Hate speech harms minorities not only mentally, but also physically as well.  Research has shown that bullying causes brain damage, and speech can do real physical harm.  Hate speech also incites others to physically attack minorities, who already face high rates of violence.

As a member of Australia’s Jewish community and a descendant of Holocaust survivors, I can proudly say that Australia’s Jewish community has played the single largest role in passing and expanding hate speech legislation in Australia, and Australia’s Jewish community also played the single largest role in forcing the Abbott government to back down when it recently tried to weaken our federal hate speech laws.  The changes to federal hate speech laws were staunchly opposed by every single human rights group and minority advocacy group in Australia, but Australian Jewish groups definitely played the largest role in making the Abbott government abandon its plans to weaken our federal hate speech laws.  In fact, The Times of Israel actually ran an article titled “Australian Jews block change in local race-hate laws”.  Without the immense pressure from Australia’s Jewish community, our hate speech laws would have been watered down like Brandis wanted them to be.  I am immensely proud of the fact that Australia’s Jews have been at the forefront of protecting and promoting human rights in this country.  The Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI) – which works to combat online hatred in Australia and abroad – is staffed entirely by Jewish Australians.  Without Australia’s Jews, hate speech legislation in this country would not be anywhere near as strong.  In fact, it might not even exist at all.  The Jewish role in human rights activism is a source of immeasurable pride for me.

I’ve dedicated my life to promoting and defending human rights in Australia.  I’ve worked for Amnesty International Australia, the Human Rights Law Centre, the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, and the Human Rights Working Group of the Greens NSW.  I know human rights very well.  As any human rights activist can tell you, hate speech is violence, and verbal violence can be even more harmful and dangerous than physical violence.  It also tends to lead directly to physical violence.  Hate speech kills people, just like climate change denial and spreading false information about medicines does.  We don’t allow people to spout lies about vaccines and most people also agree that we shouldn’t allow people to spout lies about climate change, so why should we allow people to spout lies about vulnerable minorities?  Speech has consequences, and nobody should be allowed to say things which are simply wrong.  When the Abbott government was trying to water down our federal laws against hate speech, it was widely said that watering down the hate speech laws would lead to race riots and even genocide.  To quote the great human rights activist Tim Soutphommasane of the Australian Human Rights Commission, “genocide begins with words.”  This is entirely true, as genocide has always started with hate speech, from the Holocaust to Rwanda.  Right-wing bigots simply cannot be allowed to undermine social cohesion and manipulate public opinion against the common good.  When the general public is exposed to dangerous ideas like the kind spouted by right-wing bigots, the results can be nothing short of catastrophic.  Tim Soutphommasane and other human rights activists have repeatedly expressed their desire to launch a major crackdown on online hatred, but nothing really significant has actually been done so far.  If Australia doesn’t stop the plague of online hatred from entering this country, the consequences could be fatal for our multicultural society.  If one wants to see what could very well happen if online hatred is not stopped, look no further than the Holocaust.  We simply cannot allow history to repeat itself.  Hate has consequences, and the only way to stop those consequences from happening is to crack down as hard as possible on all manifestations of hatred, along with all other content that’s harmful to human dignity and to society.

Like all democratic rights, the right to freedom of speech comes with significant responsibility and has to be balanced against other rights.  Nobody has the right to spread lies, falsehoods, or misleading information.  The right to accurate information – and the right to be fully informed – are needed in order to fulfill democratic duty, and spreading misinformation can be very dangerous (just ask the countless people who have died thanks to anti-vaccine propaganda, or the countless people who have died thanks to the gun lobby’s propaganda in the US).  This is perfectly consistent with libertarian principles, as withholding information or spreading misinformation manipulates free choices and therefore subverts liberty.  As any human rights lawyer could explain, the human right to freedom of speech must be balanced against other human rights, including the human rights to protection from vilification, libel, slander, propaganda, misleading information, incitement, insult, offense, hatred, discrimination, and so forth.  Freedom of speech is also never a license to oppose human rights.  You cannot oppose racial equality, you cannot support Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, you cannot oppose marriage equality, you cannot support laws that curtail civil liberties, you cannot oppose a woman’s right to have an abortion, you cannot support inhumane treatment of refugees, you cannot oppose liberal democracy, and you cannot support the death penalty, to name just a few things.  A society based on fundamental human rights has absolutely no place for anyone who opposes these fundamental human rights.

The United States has no human rights culture whatsoever, so they don’t have laws against any of these things.  Australians should be extremely thankful that we do not share the same values as the bigotry-supporting, human rights-opposing United States.  Under Brandis’s ultra-libertarian, free speech fundamentalist proposal, ONLY incitement to hatred would be illegal, which most Australians (especially human rights activists) thought weakened our hate speech laws far too much.  But, in the US, there aren’t even any laws against incitement to hatred.  In fact, there are no laws against racial vilification whatsoever.  The main concern about George Brandis’s proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act was that his amendments might allow certain racist comments to be made if those comments were made as part of a “public discussion”.  In the US, however, ALL racist comments are allowed, even when they’re NOT made as part of any kind of public discussion.  For people in a civilised country like Australia, that sort of thing is just unimaginable.

Can you even IMAGINE the massive outrage that would ensue if a politician ever proposed completely abolishing all racial vilification laws in Australia?  They would lose their job instantly, and they would become the single most hated person in the country.  In fact, George Brandis became the single most hated person in Australia when he proposed merely WATERING DOWN our federal hate speech laws and his proposal was universally seen as a horrific attack on the basic human rights of minorities, so it’s hard to imagine just how hated a politician would be if they actually proposed completely abolishing all hate speech laws in Australia.  That’s not something that anyone in Australia would ever even consider.  In a human rights-based culture like Australia, you have freedom of speech, but you cannot use your freedom of speech to harm people or to harm society.  You cannot offend or insult people, you cannot promote unacceptable ideas, you cannot say things which aren’t constructive, you cannot oppose human rights, you cannot incite hatred or violence, you cannot argue against the common good, and you cannot say things which simply aren’t true.  All rights are bordered by other rights.  This is the core of Western Enlightenment thinking.  When it comes to balancing freedom of speech against other human rights, the Internet should be no different.  Our hate speech laws exist to protect the most vulnerable and marginalised members of our society, but, by failing to filter the Internet – thus allowing vulnerable minorities to be exposed to online hate speech from the anti-human rights US – we are failing in our human rights obligations.

Multiculturalism is one of Australia’s greatest success stories.  But, for far too many people, racial vilification remains a sad reality – especially online.  Under international human rights law, Australia is required to vigorously prosecute all forms of hate speech, including online hate speech.  But, at the moment, Australia is not doing nearly enough to truly fight against online hatred.  It’s time for us to strongly consider Internet filtering to crack down against online hate speech.  Human rights groups like Amnesty International have endorsed Internet filtering as an effective way to combat online hate speech (so long as those Internet filters are not abused to restrict legitimate freedom of speech on the Internet).  Australia’s very own Human Rights Law Centre has repeatedly stated that Australia needs to block access to hate sites, but that Internet filtering should never be used in order to curtail freedom of speech online.  Obviously, it’s important to ensure that any Internet filtering does not interfere with freedom of speech online, as Australia needs to staunchly oppose all forms of Internet censorship.  However, hate speech is not free speech, and it’s not protected by freedom of expression.  Freedom of speech should never be something that hurts people.  Australia needs to strongly protect free speech online while actively prosecuting hate speech online.

Human rights organisations in Australia have long complained that we need to pass and enforce much stricter legislation against online hate speech.  Currently, we are failing to truly fight against online hatred, and this is damaging our international human rights reputation.  Countries like the UK and France are much more stringent in protecting human rights online.  Failing to adequately filter and prosecute online hate speech means that we are opening the doors to all manner of racial violence and perhaps even genocide.  The only way to get rid of hatred and intolerance is to vigorously and aggressively prosecute all manifestations of hate speech.  If Australia is truly serious about being a modern, advanced liberal democracy that genuinely respects basic human rights, fundamental civil liberties, and essential individual freedoms, then it’s time to get serious in our fight against hate speech and other human rights abuses on the Internet.  The time to start seriously protecting human rights on the Internet is right now.  Not only do we need to protect the most vulnerable and marginalised groups from being exposed to online hatred, but we also need to prevent the general public from being exposed to it as well.  When right-wing hatemongers are allowed to manipulate public opinion against the common good, things like the Cronulla rioting – or, even worse: the Holocaust – can and do happen.  Every genocide in history has started with hate speech, from the Holocaust to Rwanda to Srebrenica.  Do we really want history to repeat itself right here in Australia?  If not, then it’s time to seriously start cracking down on Internet hatred, along with all other human rights abuses on the Internet.  If we don’t, the consequences could be even worse than any of us could possibly imagine. TC mark

This post originally appeared at The Australian Independent Media Network.

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