Hate Online, Role of Industry Debated

This week, a Paris conference on Internet hate sites and the fight against online racism is drawing attention to what European officials call a “growing problem” in the form of hate speech and racist propaganda on the Web.

Although there is agreement that the Internet industry — ISPs, Web hosts and others — has made strides in working with law enforcement and vice versa, officials at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called on more effort from the industry.

The United States was the subject of discussion at the conference, particularly with regard to sites hosted in the U.S., where free speech protections often allow the promotion of ideologies that support racism and hate.

However, there is some agreement that tight regulation of content or of providers would do more harm than good and that holding companies responsible for content on the sites they host is unrealistic.

A Global Call

OSCE speaker and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier this week told conference attendees that his country has moved aggressively against intolerance on the Internet, but needed the help of the entire world.

“On our own territory, we have decided to take measures against these activities by toughening the laws dealing with crimes motivated by racism, anti-Semitism or xenophobia, by holding Internet providers responsible for their sites and by systematically searching for hate speech in the media,” he said.

“However, one state can only do so much,” Barnier added. “The Internet does not have any boundaries. The OSCE must become an observatory to identify and help propagate best practices and, based on this work, it must also act as a laboratory where, for example, a code of conduct could be developed.”

Resisting Regulation

Although a code of conduct might emerge from the conference, there were also concerns that the work of dealing with racism online should be left to the companies that provide Internet services — and not to governments.

“[Nations] should undertake measures to strengthen international cooperation and mutual assistance between law enforcement authorities to ensure that effective action can be taken against the dissemination of racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic material via the Internet,” said OSCE Chairman and Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy.

“The best approach is self-regulation, through developing codes of conduct and through increasing users’ and providers’ awareness and sensitivity to the problem,” Passy said.

Tracking Over Takedowns

Frost and Sullivan senior analyst Mukul Krishna told TechNewsWorld that although service providers and hosting companies do have an obligation to work for the better of community and society, they cannot be regulated or forced into monitoring the sites they run.

Krishna argued that the Internet and its users would be better served by improvements in the way ISPs and others handle complaints about racist or other offensive materials and help law enforcement to keep tabs on hate groups.

“It makes more sense being able to leave them out so law enforcement can keep tabs on them,” Krishna said. “Shutting sites down and canceling accounts doesn’t do anything. If law enforcement can have certain deals with ISPs before shutting down sites, they can track them. I always feel that monitoring what may be deemed illegal and being able to check them is better.”

Cooperation Gains

Krishna, who agreed that regulation or legislation would be ineffective because of free-speech protections, said there is an improved trust and respect between law enforcement and the Internet industry.

“Many ISPs are hiring ex-law-enforcement officials who can review content and help them to know what to do in a certain situation when a complaint has come in on a site,” Krishna added.

The analyst also said hate speech and racism are different from child pornography, where there is no question as to the illegality of the material.

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