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OSCE Meeting Examines Hate Crimes and Racist, Xenophobic, and Anti-Semitic Internet Propaganda
Wednesday, June 30, 2004

  “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend
to the death your right to say it.”

– Voltaire

By Erika Schlager
CSCE Counsel on International Law

On June 16 and 17, 2004, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s participating States met in Paris for a meeting on “the Relationship between Racist, Xenophobic and Anti-Semitic Propaganda on the Internet and Hate Crimes.”  The meeting was part of an OSCE focus this year on racism, xenophobia, discrimination, and anti-Semitism and, like two other special human dimension meetings scheduled for this year, was mandated by the OSCE Ministerial Meeting held Maastricht last December.

Conferences on anti-Semitism (held in Berlin, April 28-29) and racism, discrimination and xenophobia (to be held in Brussels, September 13-14) are intended to build on high-level meetings already held last year in Vienna on those same subjects. The Paris meeting focused on a specific issue – the Internet - related to the overall topic.  

The convocation of a special meeting on the relationship between racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic propaganda on the Internet and hate crimes was the product of advocacy by non-governmental organizations such as IN@CH, the International Network Against Cyber Hate, and the leadership of the Government of France.  IN@CH had previously raised awareness of the problem of hate mongering on the Internet at the OSCE’s annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in 2002 and, at the 2003 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, hosted a side-event on the subject.  Historically, the OSCE has been most effective when governments gain a sense of ownership of an issue and exercise leadership in moving it forward.  Non-governmental organizations typically play a critical role in identifying concrete human rights problems and bringing them to the attention of governments.

The U.S. Delegation to the Paris meeting was jointly led by Ambassador Stephan M. Minikes, head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE; R. Alexander Acosta, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights; and Dan Bryant, Assistant Attorney General for Legal Policy.  Markham Erickson, General Counsel from Net Coalition; Brian Marcus, Director of Internet Monitoring; Anti-Defamation League, and Ronald Rychlak, Professor of Law and Associate Dean, University of Mississippi Law School, joined the delegation as Public Members. 

Other members of the delegation came from the Department of State, the Department of Justice, and the Helsinki Commission.  The United States Delegation engaged fully in the 2-day meeting, making presentations in all formal sessions and side events, holding bilateral meetings, and conducting consultations with non-governmental organizations.  Assistant Attorney General Dan Bryant was a keynote speaker.

Although the meeting was mandated to examine the relationship between hate propaganda on the Internet and hate crimes, few participants actually discussed the nexus between these two phenomena.  For many participants, the existence of a cause-and-effect relationship was simply an article of faith or intuition, and did not lead to an exploration of the nature of that relationship.  As a consequence, the meeting made only a marginal contribution to an understanding of which populations might be most vulnerable to the influence of hate propaganda, whether hate propaganda on the Internet fosters some particular kinds of hate crimes more than others, or whether the effect of hate propaganda on the Internet plays a different role in fostering violent crimes than, for example, weak law enforcement or public officials who make or refuse to condemn racist, anti-Semitic or xenophobic remarks.  It is not clear whether web-based hate propaganda is related to spikes in hate crimes that have occurred in some countries in recent years, or why, as seems to be the case, some places with unfettered Internet access have relatively lower levels of hate crimes than other places with similarly unfettered Internet access.

Nevertheless, participants did address a broad range of subjects related to hate propaganda, hate crimes and the Internet over the course of the two days.  Formal sessions focused on “Legislative Framework, Including Domestic and International Legislation Regarding Propaganda on the Internet and Hate Crimes,” “The Nature and Extent of the Relationship between Racist, Xenophobic and anti-Semitic Propaganda on the Internet and Hate Crimes,” “Public and Private Partnerships in the Fight Against Racism, Xenophobia and Anti-Semitism on the Internet – Best Practices,” and “Promoting Tolerance on and through the Internet – Best Practices to Educate Users and Heighten Public Awareness.”   Side events were held on “Guaranteeing Media Freedom on the Internet,” “‘The IN@CH Network’ - Dealing with Cyber Hate on a Daily Basis,” “Identifying Examples of Hate Speech: A BBC Monitoring Project,” “Filtering: Princip, the Solution that goes beyond Key Words,” “Satellite Television and Anti-Semitism: How to Combat the Dissemination in Europe of Racist and Anti-Semitic Propaganda through Satellite Television?” and “Promoting Awareness of Anti-Semitism in the European Classroom: Teacher Training, Curricula, and the Internet.”

A number of speakers, including U.S. Government representatives, discussed the legal mechanisms for action that might be taken when hate propaganda rises to the level of a crime in and of itself, such as when the hate propaganda constitutes a threat or incitement to a criminal action.  Many speakers discussed the role of non-governmental organizations in monitoring and facilitating the removal of hate sites from the web when they violate the terms of agreements with their Internet service providers (ISPs).  Some participants described ways in which the pernicious effects of hate speech can be mitigated or countered.  For example, a Canadian non-governmental organization, Media Awareness Network, made a presentation on programs in Canadian schools designed to teach children to distinguish between hate propaganda sites and legitimate information sources.  Vividly illustrating the challenges and risks for those organizations which monitor and report on the activities of extremist hate groups, the offices of People Against Racism, a Slovak non-governmental organization that participated in Paris meeting, were burned out only weeks before the meeting opened.

Although there was broad agreement on the goal of combating hate propaganda, some participants flagged concerns about the methods that might be used to that end.  For example, industry representatives provided some insight regarding difficulties faced due to the technological challenges of tracking, filtering, or blocking hate propaganda transmitted through the Internet, emails, or text messaging.  Some concepts of regulation, they argued, could not be effectively implemented given the state of current technology.  Asking ISPs to be responsible for screening all content on the web is not feasible, anymore than making telephone companies responsible for everything that gets said over the telephone.

A few participants drew attention to factors other than hate propaganda on the Internet that may contribute to hate crimes.  A Russian non-governmental representative, for example, remarked that there was more anti-Semitism in the Russian State Duma than on Russian-language web sites.  And, illustrating the complexities of deciding exactly what constitutes hate propaganda, one non-governmental representative argued that evangelical Christian sites that reach out to Jews should be considered anti-Semitic.  Similarly, the Russian delegation identified the web sites of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishnas as “promoting hate doctrines.”

Other concerns were voiced as well.  Some non-governmental groups suggested that ISPs were ill-suited to determine whether web sites constituted hate propaganda or not.  One described an ISP that removed an innocuous site devoted to English philosopher John Stuart Mill after that non-governmental organization – testing the bases upon which ISPs would act – urged the ISP to take down the allegedly racist site. Regulation of hate propaganda by ISPs, they concluded, lacked transparency and accountability.

Some speakers warned that combating hate propaganda could be used as a pretense for sanctioning views disfavored by the regime.  The International League for Human Rights suggested that states with “weak democratic institutions and traditions” should not be entrusted with additional powers of control beyond those that already exist.  Indeed, some speakers argued there have already been instances where laws against incitement to racial hatred (or similar laws) have been misapplied for political or other purposes.  The ongoing fight against terrorism, they suggested, increases that danger.  In fact, only days after the Paris meeting concluded [June 22], the Paris-based watchdog Reporters without Borders released a report entitled “Internet Under Surveillance,” documenting repression of the Internet around the globe.  One of the U.S. recommendations made during the meeting was that the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media should examine whether hate speech laws are being enforced in a discriminatory or selective manner or misused to suppress political dissent.  The full texts of statements circulated at the Paris meeting by the United States and other participants are available through the OSCE’s Internet web site at http://www.osce.org/events/conferences/anti-racism.

One of the sub-texts of the meeting was the putative “Atlantic Divide.” In the context of discussions of “cyber hate” and hate crimes, this phrase was used to describe the perceived gulf between the United States’ and Europe’s approaches to hate propaganda.  According to the adherents of the “Atlantic divide” theory, the United States is a free-speech Wild West, where speech has no limitations or legal consequences.  “Europe,” in contrast, is portrayed as a unified region speaking with one voice, populated by those who have wisely learned from the horrors of World War II that dangerous speech can and must be sanctioned and that governments are easily capable of performing this task and do so as a matter of course.  The “Atlantic Divide” perception was fostered by Robert Badinter, former French Minister of Justice and current president of the OSCE Court of Arbitration and Conciliation, who, in a keynote address, dramatically appealed to the United States to “stop hiding behind the first amendment.”

Others, however, implicitly or explicitly rejected this overly simplistic image.  In the United States, a long chain of legal authority recognizes that the right to free speech and freedom of expression is not absolute.  As U.S. Public Member Robert Rychlak noted, “When speech crosses the line and becomes more than speech – when it presents a clear and present danger – the authorities must be prepared to step in and take legal action.  At that time, the speech may constitute an actual threat, true harassment, or be an incitement to imminent lawlessness.”  Department of Justice officials separately gave examples of numerous recent cases where individuals were prosecuted for sending email messages that rose to the level racially motivated threats.  While it is important not to over-read these or related cases – criminal sanctions based purely on one’s opinion remain prohibited – they should dispel the misimpression that there are no limitations whatsoever on speech or the consequences of speech in the United States.

Conversely, the context of the meeting also provided an opportunity to reflect on the image of Europe as a continent uniformly bound in a single regulatory approach to hate speech.  In reality, the national laws relating to hate speech of individual European countries vary considerably; what constitutes prohibited speech in one country may be permitted in the next.  Moreover, both national courts and the European Court of Human Rights apply balancing tests to speech restrictions that, while not identical to balancing tests applied by U.S. courts, are not entirely dissimilar.  The Hungarian Constitutional Court, for example, in May 2004 held that a proposed hate speech law would violate the free speech provisions of the Hungarian Constitution.  Just before the opening of the Paris meeting, on June 13, the French Constitutional Council struck down parts of a new law governing communication over the Internet (adopted to implement a June 8, 2000, European Union directive on electronic commerce).

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords.  The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.

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