LAWS to tackle racism on the internet are set to be beefed up.
Authorities warn they are often powerless to act against online content, which is responsible for almost one in five racial vilification complaints.
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.
Mr McClelland said the government was exploring what action it could take on internet material that breaches the Federal Racial Discrimination Act.
Options include providing the commission with sharper teeth to order internet service providers to remove racist content, and changing the Racial Discrimination Act so it is easier to apply criminal sanctions.
Such changes, which are opposed by civil libertarians, could have a major impact on news websites that offer readers the opportunity to comment, and on internet service providers that currently work voluntarily with the Human Rights Commission to remove racist material.
At its most serious, online racism is dealt with under the Commonwealth Criminal Code, which can punish those who urge people to harm other Australians because of their race.
But when there is no obvious intent to incite violence, the commission has only limited powers.
Race Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes said there were clearly “persistent pockets of racism in Australia” linked to attacks on Indian students and cyber racism.
“There is no getting away from it,” he said. “Cyber racism is a result of that, as are the attacks on Indian students, and we need to address it.”
Premier John Brumby and Victoria Police have insisted there is no evidence that most attacks against Indian students in Melbourne are racially motivated. The stance has infuriated India, contributing to a damaging rift. Mr Innes said complaints about cyber racism made up 18 per cent of all racism complaints received by the commission.
He said the Racial Discrimination Act should be changed to allow prosecutions in serious cases of internet racism.
Currently, the commission can only resolve racial complaints through conciliation with internet service providers and social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.
In recent years, there has been a proliferation of apparently racist social networking groups such as SPEAK ENGLISH OR PISS OFF!!! (SEOPO), with almost 50,000 members, “F– Off We’re Full” and “Mate speak English, you’re in Australia now”.
But civil libertarians are concerned the changes could have unintended consequences, creating a divide and hardening racist attitudes in the community.
Liberty Victoria president Michael Pearce said legislating to police racism on the internet was difficult and the government would be better off putting resources into community education and improving social cohesion.