Chapter 8 - Free speech abuses: options for reform


Robust communication has been a hallmark of the internet since its inception. Free speech values and an abhorrence of censorship are central to its culture.

Some internet advocates may argue that any damage caused by offensive online speech might be regarded as an unfortunate by-product of the much greater good associated with the rough and tumble of the free flow of information and ideas on the internet.

Our tolerance for offensive and damaging speech is influenced by myriad individual, cultural and environmental factors. Many would argue that cyberspace provides millions of different “environments”, and that individuals are therefore free to choose the type of content they expose themselves to, and the types of online company they keep.

This is true – to an extent. Those who are offended by obscenities and personal invective can avoid reading those websites which publish such speech. However, while it may be a feasible strategy for adults to avoid destinations likely to offend them, it is no solution to tell young people whose peers are living their lives on Facebook and You Tube to simply avoid these sites. Such a remedy is surely the 21st century equivalent of denying a child access to television.

Furthermore, as we have discussed, such content is not easily removed or quarantined, thanks to Google or similar search engines and the practice of caching.

In the preceding chapter we concluded that the criminal and civil law already covers many of the harmful online behaviours reported by the likes of NetSafe. However we also observed that there are problems accessing and enforcing the law and sometimes in determining whether the Acts are in fact capable of being applied to internet speech. We also noted some gaps in the law.

In this chapter we:

  • make preliminary proposals for amendments to various statutes addressing speech-related harms;
  • ask whether there is a case for creating a body capable of providing swift and inexpensive redress for those who have been seriously harmed by speech abuses;
  • ask whether there is a case for establishing an independent Commissioner to act as a portal for complaints about speech-related harms.