Is Cyber Racism an Untameable Beast?

November 17, 2010 by Peter Wertheim
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‘Cyber racism’ refers to material published on the internet which is freely accessible and vilifies or harasses a person or group of persons because of their actual or presumed colour, nationality, descent or ethnic, ethno-religious or national origin.

Peter Wertheim

Vilification means making or attempting to make another person or group of persons an object of detestation, enmity, ill-will, revulsion, serious contempt and/or malevolence.  Harassment can include the making of threats or engaging in serious and substantial bullying or similar abuse.  Cyber racism can take many forms such as images, blogs, video clips on YouTube and comments in social media like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

The promotion of racism in the public domain undermines, and can ultimately destroy, the sense of safety and security with which targeted persons and groups go about their daily lives, and undermines social harmony between persons of different backgrounds.  It is often the precursor to racially motivated violence even if there is no express incitement to violence.  Racial hatred is an inherently violent emotion, whether it actually generates violence in any particular instance or not.

Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination requires countries such as Australia, NZ, the UK and Canada which are parties to the Convention to “declare an offence punishable by law all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred…and also the provision of any assistance to racist activities.”

In those countries and elsewhere, laws have been introduced prohibiting the publication of the kind of material that constitutes racial vilification or harassment, but not in the US where the First Amendment would possibly render any such laws unconstitutional.  Where such laws do exist, they were drafted before or at the dawn of the internet age.  Whilst courts have found that those laws extend to the promotion of racial hatred in any form, their application to cyber racism poses formidable challenges.

Racist content on a website might be freely accessible by an internet user located in Australia, but if the publisher of the material and the internet service provider (ISP) are located, say, in the United States and have no assets in Australia they are effectively beyond the reach of Australia’s courts. And the legality or otherwise of the published content may vary from country to country and even, in Australia, from State to State, and as between the Commonwealth and the States, because the laws are all formulated in different terms.

The challenges posed by cyber racism are growing. Eighteen per cent of racial hatred complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2008-2009 related to racist material on the Internet, up from nine per cent in 2007-2008.  Social media platforms have grown rapidly in popularity and have a circulation many times larger than conventional media.

Of course, the law is not the only mechanism available to counteract cyber racism.  In Australia, the introduction of a National Education Curriculum provides a unique opportunity to provide students with ongoing education in critical thinking.  The skills of critical thinking, and not merely instruction about the social and moral evils of racism, should be integrated in the curriculum beginning in primary school and reinforced in courses in history, literature and the natural and social sciences in secondary school.

Adopting a skeptical and analytical approach to all sources of information, especially on-line sources, should be so deeply instilled in students that it becomes second nature.  Questioning assumptions and seeking and weighing alternative views should become a habit. This would provide some much needed balance to the laissez faire on-line culture that currently prevails.

Self-regulation is another option.  This involves victims of cyber racism, and anti-racist non-government organizations, making representations to publishers, website hosts and platform providers such as YouTube and Facebook, to persuade them to remove offending content voluntarily.  This can be effective if the companies are responsive.  Web-site owners and ISP’s are not always aware that particular on-line material constitutes cyber racism and, once they are made aware, many are anxious not to be identified publicly as purveyors of racism.

But this is not always the case.  Most publishers of cyber racism do so knowingly and assert that their right of free speech over-rides the rights and freedoms of the individuals or groups they vilify or harass.  Some of them consider it a badge of honour to be tagged as a racist.  Their ISP’s pretend to be mere conduits and disclaim all responsibility for the way their services are used.

ISP’s lack the knowledge and insight into racism to enable them to make an informed decision about whether a particular publication has crossed the line into racial vilification or harassment.  More to the point, web-sites often generate advertising revenue for their owners, and the owners pay the ISPs. In social media platforms, the more viewers and discussion, the more advertising revenue can be created, and this advertising revenue usually goes directly to the platform provider. ISP’s and platform providers have a clear commercial interest against any form of regulation, and in being as permissive as possible.  The final decision about whether or not to allow an allegedly racist publication to remain on the net should not rest with them.

Ultimately, even though the law is not the whole answer to cyber racism, it must be a critical part of the answer.  Without the ultimate sanction of the law, the scourge of cyber racism will continue to grow unchecked.  Like other contemporary scourges, such as terrorism and environmental degradation, cyber racism operates across national boundaries and governments acting individually cannot deal with it effectively.

The technical means exist to curtail cyber racism if not eliminate it altogether and to force web- site owners and ISP’s to act with social responsibility if they will not do so voluntarily.  Only if governments co-operate will it be possible to harness these technical means to deal effectively with cyber racism.  As a starting point, countries could agree in a formal treaty to recognize and give effect to judgments delivered by one another’s courts concerning specific racist publications.

Thus, for example, the government of country A could undertake to order an ISP operating from its territory to ensure that certain content is not accessible to users of the internet located in country B if a court or tribunal in country B has found that the publication of the content in country B is in breach of its laws.

No doubt more ingenious minds will be able to devise other legal mechanisms to address the problem.  What is important at this stage, years after the advent of the internet, is that international law starts to catch up.  Cyber racism need not be an untameable beast, if governments are prepared to start attacking the problem in a concerted and co-ordinated way within an agreed legal framework.  All that is required is the political will and intelligent leadership.

Peter Wertheim is Executive Director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. He recently attended an Experts Forum on Combating Antisemitism in Ottawa and its Working Group on Hate on the Internet. The internet hate working group was addressed by 5 leading experts, including Australia’s Dr Andre Oboler (Director of the Community Internet Engagement Project).

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