If we still lacked evidence that Australia’s technologically illiterate politicians and emotionally fragile sportsmen, with their calls for tough new laws to police social media, needed a chill pill and a sense of perspective, the weekend provided plenty.

So many valuable journalistic resources have been expended these past few weeks to bring us the frightening news that the internet allows us to communicate with each other, and that some of that communication isn’t nice. Sometimes people even organise themselves into doing not-nice things as a group.

Yet what those calling for new laws seem to constantly forget is that criminal acts, and organising criminal acts, are already illegal. They’re crimes, in fact.

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Fortunately NSW Police haven’t forgotten.

Operation Waterman was established as a “high-visibility policing strategy” to monitor and respond to activities that could have led to “incidents” in the Sydney CBD like those the previous weekend — the ones ABC TV’s never-hyperbolic 7.30 called a “violent and unpredictable Muslim uprising“.

“As part of this operation police have actively been monitoring the internet and social media,” said a NSW Police media release. “It will be alleged officers discovered a man had sent offensive messages to a woman on a social networking site. The messages, which police allege were violent and s-xually explicit in nature, were posted publicly on the social media site.”

At about 2.30pm yesterday a 38-year-old man was arrested at a home in Williamtown and subsequently charged with “using a carriage service to menace/harass/offend”.

Similarly, people believed to be involved in organising last weekend’s “uprising” have also been arrested.

On Friday, police report, a 20-year-old Glenmore Park man was charged with “recruiting persons to engage in criminal activity and printing/publish to incite/urge/aid commission of crime”, and a a 21-year-old man was arrested in George Street, Sydney, and charged with the same offences.

“People need to realise that by merely inducing or inciting others to be involved in violent behaviour, through social networks, is an offence that carries a maximum penalty of seven years in jail,” said Operation Waterman’s commander, Assistant Commissioner Alan Clarke, in yet another media statement.

It’s a point John Birmingham made a fortnight ago as the war on trolls kicked off, but it’s worth repeating:

Neither the Prime Minister nor the NSW Premier actually need to do anything about internet trolls. Section 474.17 of the Commonwealth criminal code creates an offence, punishable by imprisonment for three years, of using a carriage service, and yes the internet counts, in such a way that a reasonable person would consider it “menacing, harassing or offensive”.

Of course, to actually catch a few trolls and imprison them, resources would need to be applied, money spent, and staff hours committed. The question of what is actually menacing, harassing or offensive, and what is merely the sort of rougher than usual rhetoric one finds online is a flame war for another day, or a question for the jury.

“Proportionate response” is the term. I believe.

While the “Muslim uprising” was certainly rowdy, in terms of actual damage to life and property it wasn’t much further up the scale from Saturday’s Great Kebab Shop Uprising, and we didn’t see NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell calling for federal government help on that.

The what, you ask?

“About 6.45am … up to a dozen men attended a kebab shop on Liverpool Street, in Sydney’s CBD, and some began throwing tables and chairs,” NSW Police report. Tables were flipped!

“Two male employees were then chased by the group along Liverpool Street before they were assaulted. Police … responded quickly to the incident and took seven men into custody. Two 26-year-old men were taken by NSW Ambulance Paramedics to St Vincent’s Hospital for treatment of lacerations and bruising. Six of the arrested men were charged with affray, while the seventh was released pending further inquiries.”

But let’s put Australia’s panic properly into perspective.

Consider the experience of the northern Dutch town of Haren, population 18.000.

A girl’s 16th birthday party invitation was accidentally made a public event on Facebook, and police estimate that between 3000 and 5000 gatecrashers descended on the down. The result was “riots, destruction, looting, fires”, according to Haren mayor Rob Bats, and an insurance bill upwards of a million euros, according to the insurers.

“Police officers were pelted with stones, bottles, tubs of flowers and even bicycles,” reported AAP. Bicycles were flipped!

But while Dutch authorities denounced the violence, I haven’t seen any reports they they called for tough new laws. Even in the Netherlands arson, looting and bicycle-flipping are already illegal. Australia really does need to get a grip.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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