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Race in Cyberspace

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Race in Cyberspace

Dr William Jonas AM, Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner

I would like to acknowledge
the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, upon whose land we meet today.

I'm delighted to
welcome you all here to this workshop on race hate on the Internet.

We are particularly
indebted to the panellists who will be working with our facilitator Greg
Tillett throughout what will be a long, but I'm confident, also a productive
day. The three broad issues for discussion are:

1. How effective
is the current regulation of racial vilification on the Internet in Australia?
2. How can the regulation of racial vilification on the Internet be made
more effective?
3. What are some possible non-regulatory ways that racial vilification
on the Internet can be addressed?

I think this is the
first time in Australia that key stakeholders have come together to analyse
and debate the regulation of racist activities on the Internet in a workshop
forum. Two years ago some of us participated in a valuable conference
on this topic. We hope that this workshop will be the beginning of a collaborative
process to develop public policy on this issue.

I would like to extend
a very warm welcome to Professor Henrik Kaspersen. Professor Kaspersen
is recognised internationally for his expertise in the field of Internet
regulation. He chaired the Council of Europe's Committee of Experts which
drafted the Cybercrime Convention.

The Cybercrime Convention
is the first international treaty dealing with criminal offences relating
to computer networks. It particularly deals with infringement of copyright,
child pornography, network security and computer-related fraud. That Committee
has also drafted an additional Protocol to the Convention. The protocol
extends the scope of the Convention to cover offences of racist or xenophobic
propaganda. Professor Kaspersen will address us shortly on the details
of the Protocol. He has travelled from Europe to join us today and we
are honoured to have him with us.

In preparation for
the World Conference Against Racism last year, HREOC staff and I conducted
some 28 separate consultations around Australia. They included 26 regional
consultations and focus groups. We also set up an Internet bulletin board
for discussion on racism. We consulted principally with civil society
because the federal government had undertaken to consult with the government
sector. By 'civil society' I mean the general community - principally
people who experience racism in their own lives.

Those consultations
revealed, unfortunately, that racism is alive and well in Australia today.
Indigenous people experience racism as a routine feature of their daily
round. "Like getting up and having a cup of tea", according
to one participant.

Racial vilification
and the negative stereotyping of ethnic and religious communities is also
a grave problem undermining social cohesion and putting individuals at
risk. Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, for example,
Australian Muslims and others of Middle Eastern appearance experienced
threats, harassment, discrimination and outright violence. New manifestations
of racism and new forums for the expression of racist ideas are emerging
and we do not necessarily have the tools to cope with them. The Internet
is one of these relatively new forums.

The research we have
undertaken in preparation for this Symposium reveals that the Internet
is used by many groups and individuals to denigrate others because of
their race. Some examples of this are illustrated in your Background packages.

Racist images and
ideas can be accessed through websites, emails, discussion-groups and
chat-rooms. Race hate has even become a form of "entertainment"
in some computer games and music. I find this material deeply disturbing,
particularly in its capacity to drain people of their humanity, to render
them as sub-human and expendable.

This material may
also violate Australian law. Racial vilification was made unlawful under
the Racial Discrimination Act in 1995. The Act is based on the
international Race Convention which is an agreement among more than 80%
of the member countries of the United Nations.

The Act makes it
unlawful in Australia for anyone to insult, humiliate, offend or intimidate
another person or group in public on the basis of their race. Many different
types of communication mediums come within the scope of the Act - radio,
TV, magazines, newspapers - and the Internet.

Free speech considerations
are protected by a number of exemptions in the Act. These require the
person to have acted reasonably and in good faith. One exemption
is for artistic expression. There's another for academic discussion; another
for political debate on matters in the public interest.

A person or group
offended by a publication on race grounds can make a complaint to the
Human Rights Commission. The Commission has investigation powers and will
usually attempt to conciliate the complaint. Conciliation involves assisting
the parties to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution. If a complaint
can't be conciliated, the complainant is entitled to take the matter to

Two recent Federal
Court decisions based on the racial vilification provisions have been
successfully fought by members of our panel today. One of these involved
the anti-Semitic website of Fredrick Toben's Adelaide Institute. Jeremy
Jones and his legal representatives, including barrister Stephen Rothman
who are on the panel today, were successful in both cases.

The World Conference
Against Racism in South Africa last year was organised by the United Nations
to mark the International Year - and the Third Decade - for the Elimination
of Racial Discrimination. The World Conference focused on practical steps
that countries could take to combat racism.

The Durban Programme
of Action finalised at the World Conference proposed that governments
should implement legislative and regulatory reforms in response to cyber-racism.

One proposal was
that governments should impose sanctions on those responsible for inciting
racial hatred or violence using the Internet. This raises doubts for me
about whether the individual complaints-based process offered by the Human
Rights Commission is sufficient to the task of protecting Australians
from this kind of material.

The complaints-based
process has its limitations. It relies on victims to make complaints.
Identifying the author or the publisher of the material is often a stumbling
block. Just as graffiti is usually anonymous, so too is material on the
internet. And there are also problems with applying Australian law to
material hosted by internet companies located overseas.

Self-regulation was
the complementary strategy proposed in the Durban Programme of Action.
Internet Service Providers, for example, should establish voluntary codes
of conduct and self-regulatory measures against the dissemination of racist
messages. Clearly the standards set in these codes should be the standards
established by the International Race Convention and, within Australia,
by the Racial Discrimination Act. One question for us today will
be whether the codes we have in Australia do meet this standard. Are they
consistent with the federal Act?

And one final question.
Even if we can effectively control racist material generated from within
Australia, is it possible to protect Australians from material created
or hosted in other countries?

I look forward to
your deliberations and wish you a fruitful and enjoyable day.