Can you fight racism with censorship?


On January 14, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Google had removed links to Encyclopedia Dramatica, a user-editable, "satirical" website that uses the same MediaWiki software as Wikipedia.

Google's actions were in response to a complaint from Steve Hodder-Watt, an Indigenous man, to the Australian Human Rights Commission (HRC).

Hodder-Watt complained to the HRC about a racist article on Indigenous Australians published on Encyclopedia Dramatica.

Hodder-Watt's lawyer, George Newhouse, said the article was "one of the most offensive sorts of racial vilification you could possibly find", said the SMH.

An article posted at quoted a Google statement clarifying the search engine's actions. Google "removed the search results on linking to the pages identified to us by a legal request" — that is, Encyclopedia Dramatica is still freely accessible via Google.

The page that sparked Hodder-Watt's complaint can still be found through Google; only the results for the precise search terms in the complaint have been altered. Even if Google's action had been more comprehensive, Encyclopedia Dramatica would have remained online and any one of the other internet search engines could have been used to find it.

So, does this really represent a victory against racism?

No one would deny the extremely offensive and racist nature of the web page in question. However, even setting aside the extremely limited scope of Google's censorship of search results in this case, and the negligible outcome of the HRC complaint, this doesn't represent a blow against racism.

An example of the ineffectiveness of using censorship to fight racism is the failure of laws designed to combat Holocaust denial.

Many countries, including Australia, have laws that either explicitly or implicitly make denial of the genocidal Nazi policies against Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others illegal. In some cases this is covered by racial vilification laws.

However, the only outcome has been that assorted Hitler-loving extremists are able to present themselves as persecuted defenders of free speech.

Worse, however, is that even censorship ostensibly aimed at fighting reactionary ideas like racism can result in restrictions on the ability of progressive activists to put forward their ideas and organise campaigns for social justice — including anti-racist struggles.

For example, apologists for Israel's apartheid regime will often slander Palestinian solidarity campaigners as racist. Challenging Zionism — the ideology underpinning the establishment of an exclusively "Jewish state" and the denial of any genuine right to self-determination for Palestinians — is frequently equated with anti-semitism, which is a racist ideology that targets Jewish people.

Anti-racist campaigners should challenge racist ideas, but at most censorship will only drive them underground, not eliminate them.

Fighting to end racist ideas means challenging the ongoing racist oppression that pervades this, and other, countries. Eliminating the material basis for racist ideas requires tackling the racial inequality.

In Australia, Aboriginal communities are over-policed by racist law enforcement agencies and incarcerated for offences that non-Indigenous people are not. Aboriginal people are frequently forced to live in conditions that it would be generous to describe as Third World. Racist ideologies develop to help justify this kind of oppression that.

Today, the most overt attack on the rights of Aboriginal Australians is not the racist juvenile "humour" of sites like Encyclopedia Dramatica.

It is the open paternalism that explicitly attacks the right of Aboriginal people to equality with other Australians, represented by the bipartisan support for the suspension of anti-discrimination laws in order to carry out the occupation of Aboriginal communities.

It is through movements against the Northern Territory intervention and the discrimination against Aboriginal Australians that the foundations of anti-Aboriginal racism can be challenged.