Council of Europe presses for 'hate speech' Internet ban

A protocol will be added to the Cybercrime Convention to ban all content containing hate speech from the Internet

The Council of Europe is pressing ahead with a protocol to criminalise hate speech on the Internet. A supplement is to be added to the newly approved Cybercrime Convention that will seek to ban all racist Web sites from the Internet.

After the convention -- the world's first international treaty on cybercrime -- was approved on Thursday, the Standing Committee of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly voted unanimously to back it up with a protocol that defines and outlaws hate speech on computer networks.

"The 11 September has shown that hate speech can become an action of horrendous magnitude," said Ivor Tallo from the Estonia Socialist Group, which authored the report. "Therefore modern technology has to have safeguards and one of those is to ban hate speech on the Internet."

The publication of material likely to incite racial hatred is already illegal in the UK under the Public Order Act 1986, but there is nothing that can be done under UK law if the company's servers are located in the US. To date there have been no successful prosecutions for race hate material appearing on the Net, so there is no case law to suggest what is illegal in the UK.

"It is difficult to apply the UK Public Order Act to online content -- there is a lack of clear precedents relating to offline content that we would need to make a judgement about anything being illegal online," said David Kerr, chairman of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). "There are no consistent laws around the world for overseas content -- the US in particular is safeguarded by the First Amendment."

Drafters of the European protocol have been advised to consider ways of preventing "illegal hosting", where servers are located in a country with more lenient laws. Tallo is keen for the hate speech protocol to bypass jurisdiction laws, so that racist organisations are unable to place their servers in the US and hide behind the protection of the First Amendment.

Racial hatred has taken a back seat in the political agenda in the past, but the Council of Europe's approval of the Cybercrime Convention -- which was drawn up with the participation of non-European countries such as the US and Canada -- signifies a new commitment to cracking down on online racist content. The Tallo report estimates that at present there are 4,000 racist Web sites, including 2,500 in the US.

The Convention on Cybercrime will be opened for signature in Budapest on 23 November.

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