Facebook rejected a request to take down a page that contained content ridiculing Aboriginal people.Facebook rejected a request to take down a page that contained content ridiculing Aboriginal people. Photo: Supplied

Facebook is facing fresh accusations that it allows hate speech to proliferate and refuses to enforce its own quality-control standards.

Dr Andre Oboler, chief executive of Melbourne’s Online Hate Prevention Institute, said abusive content, including pages making offensive and racist attacks on Aborigines, could still be accessed overseas, after being blocked in Australia.

To make social media sites more accountable, the institute is developing software that tracks and categorises how they respond to user complaints.

Dr Oboler said Facebook blocked offensive pages only in the country where a complaint originated. He said that while travelling in Israel, he could access an abusive page that was taken down in Australia months ago.

He said the social network did not classify these websites as containing hate speech and therefore only applied a country-wide block, rather than deleting them entirely.

”One problem is that [Facebook] doesn’t really seem willing to learn from the international experience and improve their own understanding of what hate speech is,” he said.

”They are putting out fires and resisting change, rather than improving their systems. Facebook’s refusal to recognise Holocaust denial as a form of hate speech is perhaps the most well documented – the refusal is explicit and comes from the top.”

Dr Oboler highlighted an offensive page about Aborigines that started in May, when more than a dozen pictures and comments were posted. Facebook rejected his request to take down the page.

A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment. The company’s community guidelines forbid hate speech. However, it makes a distinction between ”serious and humorous speech”.

”While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition,” the company says in its guidelines.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson said he had discussed the issue with Facebook’s local representatives. He said the onus was on the social network to enforce its own community guidelines.

While he hadn’t seen the meme websites, he said, generally, if people did not like the content, they should stop using Facebook.

”Facebook should prioritise free speech over offensive conduct because nobody knows what’s going to be offensive to another person,” Mr Wilson said. ”Sometimes it’s obvious, but in many cases, people may not actually take offence.

”They shouldn’t be banning everything just because people complain. It’s a private social network and they’re allowed to do whatever they want to.”

Mr Wilson said the law was designed to protect people from serious harm, but did not extend to ”merely offensive material”.

The government is proposing changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which places restrictions on hate speech and racial insults.

Attorney-General George Brandis has said any changes would be delayed until later this year. The delay follows significant opposition to the changes, including from groups representing racial and religious minorities.

The Online Hate Prevention Institute is developing an application to measure how quickly social networks respond to reports of online abuse. The first stage of the development, which is complete, comprises a web form that enables users to enter a web link to the content being reported. Users can also classify what kind of hate speech it represents, although the options are limited.

The organisation is seeking funding to build new features, including a function to find the most offensive content, and using crowdsourcing to verify whether particular content is a form of hate speech.

Dr Oboler said while the social network was more interested in preserving users’ rights to free speech, victims of online abuse continued to suffer.

”The platforms do ban hate speech in general. The problem is that without case law which determines what counts as hate speech … they pretty much make it up on the fly,” Dr Oboler said. ”They are not experts in this area and often get it very wrong.”