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Combating Internet Hate: Key Issues

Posted: September 11, 2006

This speech was delivered by Christopher Wolf, Chair of the Anti-Defamation League Internet Task Force and Chair of the International Network Against Cyber Hate at the 3rd International Symposium on Hate on the Internet sponsored by  B'nai Brith Canada  Institute for International Affairs and League for Human Rights at Toronto, Canada on September 11, 2006.

It is my great pleasure to participate in this important conference.  As hate speech proliferates on the Internet, it is more important than ever to consider ways to combat the scourge of online hate, and this conference is an excellent opportunity to examine the problem and share ideas.  I thank B'nai Brith Canada for organizing this wonderful event.

Having participated in similar discussions in Paris, Stockholm, Tel Aviv, Ottawa and throughout the United States, and having written about the issues, I know that no matter how many ways we might come at the problem, one dichotomy dominates the discussion:  On the one hand there is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and its liberal allowance for all but a very narrow category of speech, which means that hate speech effectively has a legal haven; and on the other hand are those countries that ban certain kinds of hate speech, and that even allow criminal prosecution of those who espouse hate.

One of the most recent, prominent examples is the conviction in Austria of Holocaust denier David Irving who was sentenced to three years in prison, a conviction the Austrian Supreme Court upheld within the past two weeks.  An appeal of the sentence itself is pending. 

I should note that, when it comes to hate speech, there is no homogenous approach in Europe. Britain, for example, has long had a more tolerant approach to hate speech than countries like Germany, France, and Austria, where Holocaust denial is a crime.  In Sweden, a prominent case has involved a clergyman accused of inciting hatred against homosexuals.  But in Britain, similar remarks were made by a Muslim leader and did not result in criminal charges.   The violence over cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammad has focused some attention on the often inconsistent rules in Europe governing free speech, tolerance, and the boundaries of public expression.  Muslims in particular have charged that hate-speech laws are implemented unfairly.   Many countries, they say, do not abide anti-Semitic outbursts, but will tolerate cartoons that to many Muslims are deeply offensive.

Regardless of whether speech is legal in one country but illegal in another, since the Internet is borderless, the focus at gatherings such as this always returns to how effective can laws outlawing hate speech be if a hate site can be hosted in the United States and accessed worldwide?

I have a particularly useful perspective on this dichotomy because I wear two hats at this conference; as chair of the Anti-Defamation League Internet Task Force and also as chair of the International Network Against Cyber Hate.

In early-1996, I was tapped by the ADL to lead its Internet Task Force.  And in that role, I repeatedly have emphasized the ADL's fundamental position that the best way to deal with hate speech, online and offline, is to shine the light on it (and the people who espouse hate), and to counter hate speech with our own speech, in the form of education and rebuttal – in other words, to speak the truth.

This strategy is informed to a very large degree by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which protects all speech except that which poses a direct and imminent threat to specific people.  The ADL strategy also is guided by the realization that censorship is a double-edged sword, and one that the ADL believes is rarely effective in the long-term.  That is not to suggest that the ADL does not, on occasion, ask ISPs and other Internet actors voluntarily to take down offensive messages.  But controlling hate speech is not the ADL strategy so much as countering it is.

The ADL recognizes that there are different approaches to dealing with hate speech, and that national boundaries, a nation's history and national laws inform what approaches are taken.  In addition, given the international nature of the Internet and the ability of hate speech to transcend boundaries, the ADL recognizes that international cooperation is essential.  It was for that reason that the ADL jumped at the chance to join the NGO called the International Network Against Cyber-Hate, better known as INACH, which was founded in Amsterdam in 2002 and which today includes as members NGOs across Europe.

For almost a year, it has been my privilege to serve as chair of INACH.  Most of the INACH member organizations are based in Europe, and INACH has its headquarters in Amsterdam.  Given the origins, headquarters and membership of INACH, there is a decidedly European-orientation to the perspective INACH has on the ways to combat online hate speech.  What this means, chiefly, is that Europeans have at their disposal laws that can be used to attack online content and those who put it there, based on content alone.

Given the fundamental role of propaganda as a tool in the Holocaust one can understand why Europeans seek to control the kind of speech that led to the death of millions.  In Europe, "Never again" means never again will the seeds of a genocide in the form of hate speech be allowed to be planted on European soil.  The ban against holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and other forms of hate speech are based on the belief that hate speech does more than merely express ideas or dissent; hate speech promotes and results in fear, intimidation and harassment of individuals, and may result in murder and even genocide of those against whom it is targeted.

Laws against holocaust denial and other forms of hate speech are specifically allowed under the European Convention on Human Rights, which legally binds all EU states and supersedes domestic law.  While the Convention explicitly guarantees "the right to freedom of expression" including "the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority," as explained by the European Court of Human Rights, nothing in the Convention may be construed so as to justify acts that are aimed at destroying any of the very rights and freedoms contained therein.  For example, invoking free speech to propagate denial of crimes against humanity is, according to the Court's case law, contrary to the spirit in which the Convention was adopted in the first place.  Reliance on free speech in such cases would thus constitute an abuse of a fundamental right.

Thus, against this background, the Council of Europe added a protocol to the Cybercrime Treaty that criminalizes hate speech on the Internet.  The main text of the treaty defines as cybercrimes activities like online child pornography, online fraud and electronic vandalism or hacking, and it sets rules for signatory nations on how the Internet should be policed.  The protocol adds racist Web page content and hate speech over computer networks to the list of cybercrimes.  The purpose of the protocol is to facilitate the enforcement of hate speech laws across national borders.  While European countries and Canada have adopted the additional protocol, the US, which has signed and ratified the cybercrime treaty, has not adopted the protocol, due to the constraints domestically of the First Amendment.

One might think that the First Amendment/ Cybercrime Protocol dichotomy means there is a serious impediment to cooperation between Europe and Canada on the one hand and the United States on the other.  I will leave for later in the conference the issue of whether legal prohibitions are the best tools to fight hate on the Internet.  But even where laws are not commonly available as an enforcement tool, there are many areas for international cooperation.

As we have demonstrated at INACH, there are opportunities to work together to share information on the presence of offensive Internet content.  The hotlines operated by INACH members result in a shared database of online offenses.   That allows for coordinated effort when approaching law enforcement or ISPs.  Often, INACH seeks their voluntary cooperation of ISPs in regulating speech that violates their terms of service.   INACH members also work together  in support of educational programs and training materials directed at children, the most vulnerable targets of racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or anti-Semitic speech.   In addition, there are ways to cooperate in the development and use of technologies that filter or at least label and segregate online hate.

In short, while the legal dichotomy I described will, I am sure, stimulate a lot of discussion at this conference, I hope we will not lose sight of the many opportunities, outside of law enforcement, for international cooperation in the fight against online hate.

Again, thank you for having me here with you for this important conference.

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Hate Speech on the Internet and the Law

Combating Internet Hate: Key Issues

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