Move to Ban Net 'Hate Speech' Draws Praise, Concern
By Bernhard Warner, European Internet Correspondent
Fri Feb 22,12:46 PM ET
LONDON (Reuters) - Authors of emails and Internet postings that contain racist or xenophobic material may face criminal charges under a proposed European treaty that is dividing the Internet and law enforcement communities.
The proposal, drafted by the Council of Europe, would essentially outlaw the publishing of " hate speech " on the Internet. Welcomed by law enforcement agencies, it has been slammed by Internet firms as impossible to enforce.
The agreement would create a comprehensive legal framework for international crimefighters as they strive to identify and prosecute cross-border hate crimes on the Internet, an area politicians are eager to crack down on in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
" We must harmonize the laws first so that countries can cooperate in criminal investigations regarding the Internet, " Peter Csonka, principal administrator at the Council of Europe, told Reuters on Friday. He added that many member states have already criminalized certain activities regarded as racist or xenophobic -- such as threatening a group on the grounds of race, color or religion -- and that the treaty would seek to extend that onto the Net.
FREE SPEECH OR RACIAL HATRED? The proposal has already provoked protest from civil liberties groups who maintain the proposal could criminalize free speech, and from some Internet firms concerned over liability issues.
Csonka said that telecommunications firms and Internet service providers have contacted the council asking for clarification on whether they would be held liable for hate speech posted or emailed by their customers.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) typically operate a policy of " notification and takedown, " in which they will remove sites containing objectionable material if it's first brought to their attention. Self-policing in this manner, they say, is the best way to tackle hate speech online.
" It's almost impossible, and this is the consensus in the IPS community too, to monitor every single piece of Web space in the Internet community, " said Paul Barker, director of corporate affairs at Freeserve, the British ISP owned by France's Wanadoo .
Csonka said the liability concerns raised by ISPs and Web site operators have not yet been addressed.
Civil liberty groups have also objected to the proposal, fearing it could bring the more rigorous anti-hate speech laws that exist in continental Europe to the more liberal UK and U.S.
For example, it is unlawful to post or sell Nazi regalia or propaganda on the Internet in France and Germany, but there are few legal curbs in the U.S. and Britain.
" This proposal could potentially outlaw free speech, " said Malcolm Hutty, general director for Campaign Against Censorship on the Internet in Britain, or CACIB. " That would be a great infringement of civil rights. "
CACIB and sister organizations of online rights group, the Global Internet Liberty Campaign, have begun to formulate a campaign to raise awareness for the new policy.
The Convention on Cybercrime is the fruit of unprecedented international cooperation, receiving input from 43 European countries plus the United States, Japan, Canada and South Africa.
Drafted by the Council of Europe, a pan-European legal forum which works for the harmonization of laws across the continent, the treaty would need individual ratification by each before it is adopted into law. It has so far been signed, but not yet ratified, by 32 nations.
The " hate speech " amendment is expected to be brought into the convention this July, officials said, after the current public input period ends.