Controversy over a Facebook page mocking aborigines may result in new legislation in Australia’s parliament compelling social media sites to remove racist content, Australian newspapers reported this week.
The page included images and statements about aborigines which hammered home, in none-too-subtle fashion, racist stereotypes about Australia’s first inhabitants. In the ensuing popular outcry, Facebook at first refused to remove the page, citing the need to protect free speech, then took the page down briefly, but later allowed it be reposted as “controversial humor.”
At this point the Australian government stepped in, with the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy demanding that the page be removed for violating Australia’s laws against racial discrimination.
While this would probably run afoul of First Amendment protections in the U.S., Australia has placed legal limits on speech with regard to race. In 1975 Australia’s Parliament outlawed racial discrimination in employment, housing, and access to public places, and in 1995 it passed an additional “Racial Hatred Act,” which forbids “offensive behavior based on racial hatred,” including any act which is “reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people…”
There are some exceptions to this rule, including statements made as part of an artistic work; as part of a debate with genuine academic, artistic, scientific or public import; as part of an objective news report; or as a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest. Apparently the Facebook page in question did not meet any of these criteria.
Nonetheless, the opposition Liberal Party is encouraging Parliament to consider further legislation that would require social networks to immediately remove such content – and, if they attempt to resist, empower the government to compel them to do so. The extra powers may be necessary, according to one supporter, because, as the latest controversy illustrated, “It is clear that regulating social media providers using traditional approaches is difficult because their senior management and ownership is normally in other countries.”