Wars on the Web

Drawing the line between Internet free speech and hate speech

News | Joanna Castle | April 2010

Complaints of racial discrimination on the web are becoming more and more common.  But imagine, for a moment, a world with no Internet. At this point, it’s hard to imagine unplugging.

In today‘s information crazed society, we have become like addicts, reliant on the web to feed our information habit at the click of a mouse. Some call this instant gratification. Yet, its undeniable that the Internet has been revolutionizing the way we link up with people across the globe. Human communication has experienced a paradigm shift, making interaction on all levels infinitely easier. Mega corporations now hold their business meetings via web conferencing. Personal communications programs such as Skype have enabled people living on opposite sides of the planet to see each other live using nothing more than standard computer video software and an Internet connection.

However, the increased opportunities have a down side; differences of opinion and belief are becoming more than harmless disagreements. Many now believe that the Internet is being used as a forum for racists and xenophobes to fuel minority hatred.

But trying to navigate the fine line between free speech and hate speech can be difficult. Racism in Europe is not a new phenomenon, but the exploitation of the Internet by racist groups is an alarming and dangerous new development.

One Austrian group on Facebook that calls itself "Ausländer die sich nicht anpassen…RAUS aus Österreich!!!" (Foreigners who don’t adapt…GET OUT of Austria) has over 6,200 members who don’t accept foreigners in their homeland. Comments appear on the home page like "Close down the borders!" and "Foreigners annoy me!"  Facebook allows groups like these to continue to operate, despite the fact that they actively foster hatred of minorities and use the network as a recruiting ground.

Instances of cyber-racism are increasingly common across the EU.  In February, authorities in the Czech Republic arrested a man who created a Facebook site entitled "Prerov against Gypsies!" Comments posted on the site by supporters express unmitigated hatred for the Roma, even encouraging people to take to the streets and assault them violently with weapons such as brass knuckles and nightsticks. During a police raid on the site administrator Prerov’s home, authorities found a submachine gun equipped with a scope. The incident prompted the Czech cyber police to intensify their crack down on online violations.

In Finland, politicians as well as immigrants are being threatened with physical violence and even murder for their pro-immigration policies and multicultural beliefs. According to the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation, the situation has been exacerbated by hate-filled websites, where people can post threatening remarks and network with other bigots.

In a recent speech addressing Internet racism, Janez Lenarčič Director of the OSCE, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw, and Ambassador to Slovenia, describes one shocking example on a hate site where the names of 50 individuals who advocate ethnic diversity in Finland were posted, so that they could be singled out as targets for violence.

"These cases remind us of how important it is to step up our activities combating incitement to violence and hate crimes, and to better coordinate our efforts," stated Lenarčič.

Some government agencies have long been engaged in the fight against racist content on the web. In France, in 2004, an international convention to address proper behavior on the Internet was sponsored by a Ministerial Committee on the Treatment of Anti-Semitism.

Later that same year, the French Senate approved a New Technologies Law, which allows authorities to take action against websites containing racist content.

In Canada, also in 2004, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler expanded legislation cracking down on both Internet hate sites and the posting of comments deemed racist in nature.

Still open is the question of assigning responsibility. Should the international community be authorized to act in cases such as these? And if so, in what manner, and through what forum? Many people feel it should.

The problem comes in setting appropriate boundaries around what should remain "free speech" protected by domestic and international law.

"We must carefully weigh the options available to tackle the issue," said Lenarčič. "Freedom of expression, one of the corner stones of the system of fundamental human rights, is of paramount significance in this regard."

One such organization that actively works to protect online communication on social networking sites and blog pages, is the U.S. organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, created in 1990. The goal of this organization is to shield Internet users from frivolous and abusive threats by providing them with the legal resources – the relevant laws, regulations and case studies – governing online speech rights.

"We’re battling for legal and institutional recognition," say the facilitators of the online site, "so that if you engage in journalism, you’re a journalist, with all of the attendant rights privileges and protections. Internet bullies shouldn’t use copyright, libel or other claims to chill your legitimate speech."

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