5 Current issues of ‘Internet censorship’: bullying, discrimination, harassment and freedom of expression

The Australian media has increasingly reported on a wide-range of issues relating to forms of Internet censorship, including tracing Internet-based child pornography rings; calls to shut down racist memes[59] sites; courts ordering the removal of Facebook hate pages involving suspects of crimes; or calls to regulate bullying or offensive behaviours.

Unsurprisingly, discriminatory behaviours that occur ‘off-line’ in everyday life, also occur ‘online’. The Commission’s statutory responsibilities regarding discrimination and protection of human rights have required the Commission to focus on behaviours involving the Internet such as cyber-bullying and online racism, sexism/sexual harassment and homophobia.

5.1 Cyber-bullying

Perhaps the most well-known ‘cyber’ form of offensive behaviour is ‘cyber-bullying’. Cyber-bullying can be defined as a person (or a group of people) using technology to repeatedly and intentionally use negative words and/or actions against a person, which causes distress and risks that person’s wellbeing.[60] In June 2010 young people aged 14 -17 years old had the highest rate of Internet use in Australia, with 91% spending time online every week.[61] Cyber-bullying affects at least one in ten students in Australia.[62]

Cyber-bullying can impact on a range of human rights, including:

  • The right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health:[63] Bullying can impact negatively on a person’s physical and mental health causing harm in the form of physical injuries, stress-related illnesses, depression and other health issues.
  • Rights to work and fair working conditions:[64] Bullying can lead to higher absenteeism from the workplace, poor or reduced performance and an unsafe working environment.
  • The right to freedom of expression and to hold opinions without interference:[65] Bullying can impact on a person’s freedom to express feelings or opinions as they no longer feel safe to do so.
  • A child or young person’s right to leisure and play:[66] Bullying often occurs where children and young people play and socialise, such as in school playgrounds and on social networking sites. All children have the right to participate in leisure activities in a safe environment. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its report on Australia’s compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, raised concerns about bullying and the importance of protecting children and young people from exposure to violence, racism and pornography through mobile phones and other technologies, including the internet.[67]
  • The right to an education (as cyber-bullying it can make a person feel unsafe and unwelcome at school and impact on how well they do).[68]
  • The right to be free from violence, whether physical or mental.[69]

 

5.2 Cyber-racism

There are many examples of cyber-racism on the Internet, from racist individual Facebook posts to group pages specifically set up for a racist purpose. An example of cyber-racism that gained considerable media notoriety was an Aboriginal memes Facebook page that consisted of various images of Indigenous people with racist captions.[70] It was reported that Facebook had classified this memes page as ‘controversial humour’ despite the fact it was said to have depicted an entire race of people as ‘inferior drunks who sniff petrol and bludge off welfare’.[71] It was further reported that while the creators of the page had ultimately removed the content, Facebook had not deleted the actual page (still classified as ‘controversial humour’).[72]

5.3 Cyber-sexism/sexual harassment

Instances of cyber-sexism are similarly numerous. The Commission’s Workplace Sexual Harassment Survey of 2012 revealed that 17% of those surveyed had been in receipt of sexually explicit emails and text messages and 4% had experienced repeated/inappropriate advances on email, social networking websites and internet chat rooms.[73] Other examples of cyber-sexism/sexual harassment include ‘creep-shots’ where men take pictures of intimate body parts of unsuspecting women snapped on the street and load them on to a publicly accessible website.[74] Another instance of cyber-sexism, which was subject to an online petition, was a page that published photos of young girls posing in pictures that had already been posted on the social media site on their own pages.[75] The pictures were then branded with lewd tags and posted on a page entitled ‘12-year old sluts’.[76]

5.4 Cyber-homophobia

The incidence of homophobic cyber-bullying has increased greatly in recent years with the proliferation of online social networking tools.[77] A homophobic language ‘audit tool’ has been developed that measures in real time when certain homophobic words are used on Twitter, and keeps a record so that usage can be measured over time. It demonstrates the high rates of ‘casual’ homophobic language used in every day interactions on Twitter and how common their usage has become.[78]

There have been high profile cases of LGBTI young people being bullied and harassed online that have resulted in self-harm and suicide.[79] A much publicised US case on the use of technology in homophobic bullying involved a university student who killed himself shortly after discovering that his roommate had secretly used a webcam to stream his sexually intimate actions with another man over the Internet.[80]

As highlighted by the examples listed above, it is clear that the Internet is being used in different ways to facilitate various forms of discrimination and harassment. This raises the question: how do Australian laws respond to and regulate these behaviours?


[59] For a definition of an (Internet) meme see: http://netforbeginners.about.com/od/weirdwebculture/f/What-Is-an-Internet-Meme.htm (viewed 27 August 2013).

[60] This definition is drawn from definition used by the National Centre Against Bullying: see http://www.ncab.org.au/whatisbullying/ (viewed 28 August 2013). It should be noted that there are numerous and varying definitions of ‘bullying’.

[61] Australian Communications and Media Authority, ‘Australia in the digital economy, shift to the online environment’, Communications Report 2009-10 Series, (June 2010), p 13.

[62] See the Alannah and Madeline Foundation’s Bullying Hurts brochure at http://www.amf.org.au/FactSheets (viewed 28 August 2013).

[63] UDHR, art 25; ICESCR, art 12(1); CRC, art 24.

[64] UDHR, art 23; ICESCR arts 6 and 7.

[65] UDHR, art 19; ICCPR, art 19.

[66] CRC, art 31.

[67] The Committee also encouraged Australia to develop programs and strategies to use mobile technology, media advertisements and the internet to raise awareness among both children and parents on information and material injurious to the well-being of children: see Committee on the Rights of the Child: Concluding Observation: Australia, UN Doc CRC/C/15/Add.268 (20 October 2005) paras 33-34. At http://tb.ohchr.org/default.aspx?Symbol=CRC/C/15/Add.268 (viewed 28 August 2013).

[68] UDHR, art 26; ICESCR, art 13(1); CRC, art 29; Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 1 - Article 29 (1): The Aims of Education, UN Doc CRC/GC/2001/1 (2001), para 8, at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/crc/comments.htm (viewed 28 August 2013).

[69] UDHR, art 5; ICCPR, art 7; CRC, art 19

[70] A Moses and A Lowe, ‘Contents removed form racist Facebook page”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 August 2012, http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/contents-removed-from-racist-facebook--page-20120808-23tr1.html (viewed 27 August 2013).

[71] A Moses and A Lowe, above.

[72] A Moses and A Lowe, above.

[73] Australian Human Rights Commission, Working without fear; Results of the Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey (2012) p 23. At http://www.humanrights.gov.au/working-without-fear-results-sexual-harassment-national-telephone-survey (viewed 27 August 2013).

[74] J Maley, ‘The disturbing phenomenon of ‘creep-shots’’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 September 2012. At http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/the-disturbing-phenomenon-of-creepshots-20120926-26kl5.html (viewed 27 August 2013).

[75] J Sinnerton and S Healy, ‘Facebook ‘sluts’ page makers vow to return’, Herald Sun, 13 October 2012. At http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/james-silverwood-and-dom-terry-creators-of-banned-12-year-old-sluts-facebook-page-vow-to-return/story-e6frf7jo-1226494768239 (viewed 27 August 2013).

[76] J Sinnerton & S, Heal, above.

[77] L Hillier, P Horsely and C Kurdas, ‘“It made me feel braver, I was no longer alone”: The Internet and same sex attracted young people’ in J Nieto, Sexuality in the Pacific (2004), p 15.

[78] See the site ‘No homophobes’ at http://www.nohomophobes.com/#!/all-time/ (viewed 27 August 2013).

[79] See for example J Schwartz, ‘Bullying, Suicide, Punishment’, The New York Times, 2 October 2010. At www.nytimes.com/2010/10/03/weekinreview/03schwartz.html?_r=1&ref=tyler_clementi (viewed 27 August 2013).

[80] Times Topics, ‘Tyler Clementi’, The New York Times, 16 March 2012. At http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/c/tyler_clementi/index.html (viewed 27 August 2013).