Ban looms for online racist material

Under a draft protocol published this week, sending racist messages by email or posting such material online would become a criminal offence

Sending racist material by email, or posting it online, will become a criminal offence throughout Europe if a draft protocol published this week is ratified.

The Council of Europe published the draft protocol as a supplement to the Cybercrime Convention. The protocol is expected to be signed in the second half of 2002.

If adopted, the protocol will mean each member state will have to adopt legislation that would make it an offence to make racist or xenophobic material publicly available through a computer. Each country will also have to make it a criminal offence to threaten a person or group on the grounds of race, colour, religion or national or ethnic origin "through a computer system".

Current UK legislation -- the Public Order Act 1986 -- already makes it an offence to incite racial hatred, but there have been no successful prosecutions for racist material appearing on the Net in this country. The protocol would significantly extend the provisions in the Public Order Act 1986, and make them common across the EU. A copy of the draft document is available here.

According to the draft document, one delegate wants the final version to include the criminalisation of "racist or xenophobic insult".

Henrik Kaspersen, the chairman of the committee that drafted the report, said, that although the protocol is meant to harmonise criminal law on the dissemination of racist and xenophobic material, the more important aspect is that of cooperation between law enforcement agencies. "The investigative powers as defined in the Cybercrime Convention and in the instruments for mutual assistance are made applicable to racist and xenophobic crimes committed by means of the Internet," he said.

The protocol was introduced in November, by the Standing Committee of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly.

One issue that still has to be addressed is how to stop racist material that is hosted outside the EU in countries that have more lenient race hate laws. Some on the Council of Europe Assembly are known to be keen to ensure the protocol will bypass jurisdiction laws, so that racist organisations are unable to place their servers in the US, for instance, where they can hide behind the protection of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

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