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Europe hopes to outlaw hate speech online

Publishing material likely to incite racial hatred is already illegal in the United Kingdom, but nothing can be done when a company's servers are located in another country.

By Wendy McAuliffe

The Council of Europe is pressing ahead with a protocol to criminalize hate speech on the Internet.

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

Publishing material likely to incite racial hatred is already illegal in the United Kingdom under the Public Order Act 1986, but there is nothing that can be done under U.K. law if the company's servers are located in another country, such as the United States. 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 United Kingdom.

"It is difficult to apply the U.K. Public Order Act to online content--there is a lack of clear precedents relating to offline content that we would need to make a judgment about anything being illegal online," said David Kerr, chairman of the Internet Watch Foundation. "There are no consistent laws around the world for overseas content--the U.S. 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. Racist organizations, for example, could place their servers in the United States and hide behind the protection of the First Amendment.

Racial hatred has taken a backseat 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 United States and Canada--signifies a new commitment to cracking down on online racist content. A recent report estimates that at present there are around 4,000 racist Web sites, including 2,500 in the United States.

"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 European Commission also recently emphasized the need to control racist content online, handing $5.37 million (6 million euros) to an Internet safety project. The funding will form the final part of the Safer Internet Action Plan, originally set up to tackle illegal and racist content on the Internet.

The new money is designated for an awareness campaign promoting the dangers of children using Internet chat rooms. A portion of the money will also be used to set up hotlines across Europe that let people report harmful content encountered on the Internet. For the next couple of months, the EC will be accepting bids for funding from European nongovernmental organizations wishing to promote awareness of safer Internet use.

Staff writer Wendy McAuliffe reported from London.