Europe Moving Toward Ban on Internet Hate Speech

BRUSSELS, Nov. 9 — The 43-nation Council of Europe is trying to ban racist and hate speech from the Internet by adding a protocol, or side agreement, to its cybercrime convention, which was stamped for ratification on Thursday. The convention is scheduled to be formally ratified at a meeting in Budapest Nov. 23.

The main text of the convention 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 would add racist Web page content and hate speech over computer networks to the list of cybercrimes, the Council of Europe, a club of European democracies that aims to protect human rights, said.

The United States, which is a signatory to the convention, resisted European moves to include the issue of racist Web sites in the main agreement, because doing so would conflict with the free-speech protections in the First Amendment.

To keep the disagreement from holding up ratification of the cybercrime convention, the council decided to cover the issue in a side agreement, which the United States and others could choose not to sign, said Angus Macdonald, a spokesman for the council.

While the side agreement obliges only the nations that sign it to ban racist Web content and online hate speech, Mr. Macdonald said, the council hopes that all signatories of the main convention, including the United States, will respect the protocol, and will agree to remove such material if it originates within their borders and is aimed at an audience in another country.

Ivar Tallo, an Estonian member of the council, gave the example of a French racist organization establishing a Web site aimed at influencing a French audience, and situating it in the United States solely to take refuge behind the First Amendment.

His example is reminiscent of a real case decided in a federal court in San Jose, Calif., on Thursday. Yahoo (news/quote), the Web portal, asked the court to refuse to enforce a ruling by a French court in November 2000 ordering Yahoo to remove all Nazi memorabilia from its auction Web site.


France is thought to be one of the countries that pressed hardest for action by the council on racist content and hate speech. But one executive of an Internet company said the protocol would have little effect.

“It is very unlikely the United States would cooperate in the way the Council of Europe would want it to by removing Web content classified as racist by another country’s courts,” the executive said. “The Justice Department fought hard to have the racist bits pulled from the cybercrime convention itself. I can’t imagine they will let freedom of speech be curtailed via the backdoor in this way.


New York Times
November 10, 2001
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

Webmaster note: As of the end of 2005, one no longer has to try to imagine the U.S. allowing freedom of speech to be curtailed via the backdoor, given the recent arrests and deportations of U.S. residents Ernst Zundel and Germar Rudolf.