Danny Yee >> Internet Censorship in Australia >> Hate Speech

Cyberhate conference report

Sydney, 5th and 6th November 2000

Note: all quotes are paraphrases from memory. I think the event was recorded, so transcripts may be available at some point, but if I've misattributed anything or made any other errors please let me know.

I was a bit concerned that the conference was going to be a "we must censor hate speech" beat-up, though the names of Philip Adams and Ken McVay on the program were reassuring.


Philip Adams didn't show. This was a shame as I'm a fan of his and had never met him before, but I met many other people I knew online for the first time. On the opening panel were Ken McVay, Mike Whine, and Liberal senator Marise Payne, with Jeremy Jones chairing in Philip Adams' absence.

Ken McVay (from the Nizkor Project) talked about how he came to be involved fighting Holocaust denial, and a bit of its online history. Among the people mentioned were Dan Gannon, a real blast from the past, and Jamie McCarthy. He put it strongly that we can't expect government to do anything about combatting hate speech and that it was up to us to act as individuals. He also talked about Sarah Soltzman (sp?), as an example of an individual harassed and stalked by extremists.

Mike Whine (from the UK Community Security Trust) was the most conservative of the panelists (but possibly less so than Jeremy Jones, who kept trying to steer things back to government regulation). He took a law enforcement perspective: he was less worried about hate web sites than about terrorism and the use of the Net to link groups in different countries. He talked a lot about what is happening in Europe, about forthcoming legislation against hate speech, and about action at the UN.

Senator Marise Payne was great. She started by praising Chomsky's approach to Holocaust-deniers, which pleased me no end but may not have gone down that well with some (The AIJAC Review isn't ever going to run anything by Chomsky on Palestine). She then took a libertarian line, consistently downplaying the idea of government regulation and suggesting it wasn't the best solution. Some great quotes included "Senator Alston would probably kill me if he heard me say this, but..." and "many [senior politicians on both sides] are yet to make it across the floor from their walnut desks to the table which has the computer on it". She also mentioned that she gets ten times as many complaints about porn as about hate speech.

My impression was that Marise has a well-thought out philosophical position on these issues, and is possibly a more committed civil libertarian than any other politician I've talked to. But of course she's got very little room to move within the Coalition.

Someone else asked a question about recourse and jurisdictions, but no one had mentioned the US First Amendment at all.... So I asked the obvious question, along the lines of "how can Australia, let alone Europe, hope to do anything about hate sites while the US First Amendment protects almost everything we might consider hate speech?". Whine's response was that that wasn't set in steel and could be changed. McVay (I think it was McVay) mentioned something about local laws being used (Pennsylvania's action in the Bonnie Jouhari case, but I didn't understand that till later). Payne (after saying she shouldn't think while speaking and didn't like speaking off the cuff) dropped the ball for once, suggesting a parallel with European/US trade conflict over the EU privacy directive... please no, senator, a trade war over a few hundred hate sites would be insanity!

Chris Puplick's speech opening the Freilich Foundation web-site was a bit of a worry. It was in the "something must be done" vein and talked a lot about the need for regulation, bringing up the old "no absolute right to free speech" and "shouting fire in a crowded theatre" lines.

I had dinner with the ANU contingent in Bill & Toni's.

After dinner David Goldman (from hatewatch.org) gave a lively tour of hate web sites. He sees a trend away from extremist "outreach" - attempting to reach everyone with "brochure" web sites - towards cyberwarfare and lone wolf "leaderless resistance". The former is attacks on infrastructure - networks and web sits - while the second involves attacks on individuals. He presented the example of Bonnie Jouhari.

Scientific Racism

I turned up early and spent three quarters of an hour wandering around the Australian Museum, which was the conference venue. The Human Evolution section begins with a discussion of diversity, but does a very poor job in my opinion of explaining human genetic diversity - and then totally destroys what it has done with a map of the four "types" of humans (yes, it has a disclaimer that mentions gradations, but the picture overpowers it). What they should have, in my opinion, is a map showing percentile bands for some specific genetic marker - a blood group maybe - to illustrate the way in which genetic clines run across any putative "race" boundaries. Better yet would be an interactive exhibit which allows the user to select a marker or allele and then displays its geographical distribution with percentile bands.

It turned out that some of my anthropological experience of "scientific" racism tied in with the conference - Rushton's name was familiar to McVay and Goldman.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Freilich Foundation (a unit at the ANU Humanities Research Centre) and AIJAC (Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council). I was a bit perturbed to find that the folder handed to me at registration included the latest issue of AIJAC's Review, full of rather biased commentary on the current conflict in Israel and Palestine. Not that I have any problem with The Review - though it would certainly be considered hate speech in many parts of the world - but it seemed a bit tactless including it (mind you, some of the kibitzers were going to yell "Jewish conspiracy" regardless).

So the three politicians I know with the most clue about the net are Kate Lundy, Marise Payne, and Natasha Stott Despoja. How do we boot all the sixty year old men out of Parliament and replace them with thirty year old women?


As a long-time Usenet user (going back to 1988), I'd known of Ken McVay for a long time - probably longer than I'd known of anyone else in the room in fact! - so it was great to meet him in the flesh.

I think it was brave of Frederick Toben (the Adelaide Institute) to come to the conference, but no one was overtly hostile to him, at least that I saw. (The German government locking him up for seven months as some kind of threat to public safety is just outrageous. How far from 1933 have they really come?)

Some of the interactions only made sense in the context of Jeremy Jones having brought suit against Frederick Toben's web site under the Racial Discrimination Act, and HREOC having ordered the site shut down less than a month earlier.

Peter Bowditch (ratbags.com) was a link regular I met for the first time. I also met Caroline Penfold from UNSW. Two Scientologists (whose names I can't remember) also turned up.


I missed the first lecture, by Craig McGarty (ANU) on "Hate and the Social Psychology of Intergroup Conflict", but I arrived just in time for Karen Douglas' paper on the work she did under his supervision, "Archival and Experimental Examinations of Responses to Internet Racism". This was an area I'd done some work on six years ago, back when you could read all the literature on the subject in a weekend. So I found it interesting, but it was really at right angles to the rest of the conference. (The study purported to show that responses to racist speech were strongest when they were non-anonymous and addressed to non-racists, but the methodology was pretty dodgy.)

After morning tea came a session "Hate in Australia". Zita Antonios talked about her experiences as Race Discrimination Commissioner. She went on about how the RDA wasn't about "jailing people for telling Irish jokes" and asked us to imagine a continuum with simple prejudice and private opinion at one end and genocide or ethnic cleansing at the other - and then placed "active dissemination of hate materials" "much closer" to genocide!

David Hollinsworth looked at hate directed at indigenous Australians. He described the very small number of web sites he'd been able to find (including a schoolboy flame off bovinelove.com that was only a bit worse than the stuff talk back radio shows produce on prime-time radio), then stressed that the most offensive thing to many indigenous Australians was institutional hate emanating from the government and the mass media - many consider www.pm.gov.au the most offensive site on the web. He also talked about positive ways people were using the Net to counter racism (and sounded very much like McVay).

Jeremy Jones gave an overview of anti-semitism in Australia. He talked about the complaints he receives, the recent spate of physical attacks on people and property, and the magazines and leaflets of the far-right groups he tracks. He also mentioned David Maddison, another person I haven't seen for many years and who used to be active in aus.censorship. (David Maddison is working to correct online lies about the Jewish faith.)

When questions came around, I mentioned that some of us in the civil liberties community thought that dissemination of hate speech was a lot closer to prejudice than to genocide, and that the step between speech and violence was a big one. Then I asked all the panelists "Do you think the government should be trying to suppress ideas?" All three panelists said "yes" - Zia immediately and quite forthrightly, David Hollinsworth more mutedly (I think the seminar made him rethink that a bit), and Jeremy with a response that included a repeat of the "there's no absolute right to free speech" and "yelling 'Fire' in a theatre" lines.

I got in a followup about how censorship was invariably used by the powerful to attack minorities and the powerless, drawing on David Hollinsworth's own comments about institutionalised hate.

The next session was on "Regulation and Remedies" and had Mike Whine and Andree Wright and Stephen Nugent from the ABA.

Mike talked about online being the same as offline and about the need for a transnational system. He talked about the UK "self-regulatory" scheme (with ISPs funding IWF) and then about how the Simon Wiesenthal Center was getting ISPs to shut down sites. (He said many were moving to Tonga, but I would have thought there'd be any number of US ISPs who'd tell the SWC to take a flying leap.) Very interestingly, he talked about European moves towards sanctions against downloading hate materials - in France "downloading with intent to disseminate", but in Germany possibly just "downloading". So it seems like "hate speech" may join child porn as "illegal to possess", at least in some parts of the world... (Whenever I thought "no, they can't be mad enough to do this", I looked across at Frederick Toben and remembered he'd spent seven months in a German prison under some outrageous hate speech law.)

The ABA presentation was as expected - a general overview of the operation of the BSA. There was one great slide with "Prohibited" at the top of it and a list underneath including "adult themes" and "simulated or implied depiction of sex" - with the "in Australia - R rated - no adult verification" in between. I must copy that layout, I've never managed such a good way of showing the sheer extent of the legislation! I was sitting next to David Goldman during this, and wished I'd had a chance to brief him beforehand, but Andree and Stephen did a great job :-) They also talked about rating systems (ICRA) and filtering.

The Bertelsman report and concerns about hate speech (greater in Germany than Australia or the US) got a mention. And apparently the ABA has received 10 complaints about hate sites (3 about race, 3 about anti-homosexual material, and 1 about religion) out of 400 total to date, but none of the content involved was ruled prohibited. They also mentioned that "the bar was high" for hate materials, referring to a David Irving video ruled G by the OFLC, with 5 people voting for that, 4 for PG, and 1 for RC.

Did anyone have any questions? Did I what! I wasn't sure what to ask, but having seen David Goldman flinch when filters were mentioned I figured he'd cover that. So I went after the secrecy and lack of reporting. Andree said there were statistical reports, but I got in a followup about how statistical reports were useless in helping people decide what would or would not be prohibited, and about how OFLC precedents for films were also useless for Net content. (Note: I really wished I'd had a printout of www.teenager.com.au/hub.html to hold up and ask "should this be banned"?)

David Goldman absolutely slammed filters. I think Andree and Stephen may have got a bit of a shock - I was surprised by the strength of the attack myself. Andree came up with something about it being ok in homes and schools, and just one part of the solution, but David wasn't deterred. And then Ken McVay hammered filters as well. (Both Nizkor and hatewatch.org are regularly blocked by filtering software as hate speech - it's damn hard to refute Holocaust denial or study hate sites without providing some texts.)

David suggested looking at genuine self-regulation instead of legislation (I think the whole BSA thing was something of a shock to him). And Ken talked about what had happened when the German government blocked access to the Zundelsite (a score of mirrors across the US within days, and proxies being used to get around the block anyway).

Jeremy talked about the David Irving video, how it was ruled illegal in NSW (under anti-discrimination law) despite the OFLC G classification. The ABA people suggested the OFLC might take that into account if the classification was appealed...

For me, the closing panel was the most enjoyable of the event.

David Goldman talked about some of the work Hatewatch had been doing, including their creation of a pre-packaged Linux server providing mailing lists, newsgroups, and other infrastructure for civil rights groups. He compared large anti-hate groups (SWC?) with Microsoft and individual grassroots action and small groups with Linux and Open Source, along with a discussion of why the latter worked better. (David and I had talked quite a bit in breaks, but hadn't discovered we were both into free software, so this was totally unexpected.) He also talked about an incubator for grass-roots civil rights organisations.

David also stressed that bigots weren't the problem, that the 450 or so hate sites (apparently the 2000 figure some people had been quoting was from the SWC and includes anarchists and bomb-making sites) weren't that important. (Something along the lines of his own life being lived in a very narrow hole.)

Jon Casimir was great, as always. (Somehow I'd managed to avoid meeting him before, even though we live in the same city, so that was yet another new "face-to-name".) He started by saying he wasn't a great fan of "law" and wanted to talk about practical things rather than morals or ethics. But he started with a biting few minutes totally demolishing the BSA (unfortunately the ABA people had left at this point :-). He then went on to look at how technological methods could be used to confuse hate sites - putting meta-tags on your pages so people looking for hate sites will get mislaid, buying domains like whitepower.net and putting content that will confuse people on them, and using parody and humour. He also explained how to take down Napster!

Ken McVay gave some detailed practical tips on debating and confronting racists or Holocaust-deniers in discussion forums. He also talked about illegal direct action and why it should be avoided.

In the general discussion at the end Sally Skinner from RMIT asked about divisions in the civil rights movement, especially over censorship. When I got a chance I used that to hammer home that any attempt to use government regulation to shut down hate sites would splinter the civil rights community: "you can laugh at Mr Toben, parody him, and correct his mistakes, but if you try to silence him, I and my organisation and thousands of others will fight you all the way" (to nodding from Goldman and McVay).

There was a fair bit of general discussion, none of which I can remember, except for David Hollinsworth urging non-government solutions and suggesting funding young people to use technology he didn't understand to combat racism.

Hate speech may be much less of a community concern than porn (less than 1 in 10 acording to Marise Payne, 1 in 40 complaints to the ABA), and there are certainly far fewer hate sites than porn sites (450 against millions), but my feeling is that, as a threat to free speech in Australia, legislation against "hate speech" is on a par with anti-sex legislation. Hopefully this conference will have sown some doubts amongst advocates of hate speech regulation, but the situation is not good. The HREOC ruling against Toben is obviously a major concern: combined with the ABA's decision to accept complaints against hate sites, it could be a disaster.

Talking to David Goldman and Ken McVay, and contrasting them with some of the Australians, highlighted just how different the civil rights situation is here to that in the United States (and North America). Perhaps it's the focus provided by the Bill of Rights or the result of the civil rights struggles of the 60s and the influence of the ACLU.

But I'm not sure there is any kind of unified "civil rights community" in Australia.

The Freilich Foundation Site

Since they put on a good conference, I'll offer some free advice on improving their web site. Firstly, they really ought to add some ALT tags to their images and take other action to make it more accessible. Otherwise someone might (as happened with the Olympics site) complain to HREOC about the site... which would be a bit embarassing. Secondly, their papers should be available in HTML (not just Word format), and without registration.

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