Europe may ban online hate speech in January

Heads of state in Europe, North America and Japan will be invited to sign an international treaty banning hate speech online at a meeting of the Council of Europe next January.

The document, an additional protocol to the Convention on Cybercrime that was ratified last November by members of the Council of Europe, seeks to criminalize “acts of a racist and xenophobic nature conducted through computer systems.” It will be presented to members for signature from Jan. 27 to Jan. 31, at the Council’s next Parliamentary Assembly session, according to a Council statement released earlier this month.

The additional protocol was included last November in the Convention on Cybercrime sponsored by the Council of Europe. However, it was dropped from the final text at the last minute in order to win the support of the U.S., which subsequently ratified the convention with 29 other signatories.

The Council of Europe brings together 44 European countries as full members, with Canada, Japan, Mexico and the U.S. admitted as observers to the Council of Ministers. The Council is unrelated to the European Union.

The aims of the protocol are to harmonize criminal law and to improve international cooperation in fighting racism and xenophobia, the statement said.

The protocol defines racist and xenophobic material as written material, images or other representations of ideas or theories advocating, promoting or inciting hatred, discrimination or violence against individuals or groups, based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin, or religion if used as a pretext for any of these factors.

It then calls on signatories to adopt legislative and other measures to make it a criminal offence to distribute or make available such material to the public through a computer system. Distribution would cover the sending of e-mail containing such material, while the creation of Web pages or even links to Web pages containing such material would be considered “making available.”

The preamble to the protocol expresses the beliefs that “acts of a racist and xenophobic nature constitute a violation of human rights” and that “national and international law need to provide adequate legal responses to propaganda of a racist and xenophobic nature through computer systems,” while “recognising that freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society.”

The protocol is intended only to cover intentional acts, the Council said in a statement.

This means, for example, that Internet service providers would not be held liable for hosting pages or transmitting e-mail messages containing racist or xenophobic material, as long as they were just serving as a conduit for the material.

The U.S. and other observer nations participated in the negotiation of the protocol’s text, and will be invited to sign it alongside the 44 member nations of the Council of Europe, the statement said.