Promote an open internet; but don’t overlook internet hate

 The UK takes over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe on 7 November and has made as one of its priorities the promotion of “an open internet, not only in terms of access and content but also [in terms of] freedom of expression.”  Without question, an open Internet has allowed the free exchange of knowledge and information, and has played a critical role in established and emerging democracies.  Free expression on the Internet is to be valued and promoted. 

But as MP John Mann (Bassetlaw), Chair of the Parliamentary Committee Against Anti-Semitism, pointed out in remarks he made on 27 October on the floor of the House of Commons with respect to the Government’s Open Internet priority for the Council of Europe, “Freedom of expression is not always a good thing.”   Mr. Mann observed: “The internet is now the place where anti-Semitic filth is spread, be it the old hatreds, the blood libels, the resurrecting of the protocols of the Elders of Zion, or the new hatreds caused by a failure to differentiate between legitimate criticism of the state of Israel and attacks on Jewish people.

A wide array of offences is being committed on the internet, across Europe and across this country today, and there have been new developments in recent times. Social media sites such as YouTube carry videos, and social networking sites such as Facebook publish messages promoting anti-Semitic themes. In blogs, not least those in online newspapers, a particular theme will give rise to a string of anti-Semitic or other offensive hate messages aimed at a specific group. That is one of the problems and dilemmas surrounding the internet.”

Indeed, just moments before John Mann delivered his remarks in the House of Commons, upstairs in a Parliament meeting room,  the  Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combatting Anti-Semitism (ICCA) Task Force on Internet Hate (of which Mr. Mann is a member) was concluding its first hearing on the nature and extent of Internet hate, and its effects.  Joining Mr. Mann on the Task Force (which is still in formation) are parliamentarians from Spain, Estonia, Lithuania and Israel (home of the other Task Force co-chair, Minister Yuli Edelstein); representatives of NGOs such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Center for Democracy and Technology; internationally-recognized Internet experts and scholars; and representatives of Facebook (Lord Richard Allan) and Google. The Task Force has been formed by the ICCA to expand the coalition’s general mission of fighting anti-Semitism to combating all forms of online hate including areas such as racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and misogyny.

The Task Force took evidence from witnesses and experts from around the world on the types of proliferating hate speech appearing on the internet, the various online media through which it appears and regional characteristics of online hate around the world. The hearing also highlighted the impact that internet hate can have, including its role in fostering hate crimes and other violence.   The tragedy in Norway last summer was discussed by a Norwegian sociologist, and the case was cited of the murdering white supremacist in Washington, DC who killed a guard at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Task Force received a voluminous written record (compiled by volunteer lawyers in the US and UK at Hogan Lovells) on the scope of Internet hate.  And it heard how prior to the Internet, haters were relegated to using the mail to communicate their hatred and rage with like-minded haters. The only place for them to have their benighted views applauded was in sporadic clandestine meetings.

The Internet changed all that. Extremists have found the Internet a boon to their warped causes.  They set up web sites, post videos, manage online stores selling recordings and clothing with hate slogans, and more, to bolster their fellow haters, and to recruit and indoctrinate new generations of haters.   And average people, using the mask of anonymity, find  they can vent rage by attacking minorities, even in the comment section to routine news stories (as Mr. Mann pointed out in his floor remarks).   

The perniciousness of hate on today’s Internet is that the more one sees it, the more one is likely to consider it normal, and acceptable. Good people are numbed by the proliferation, and daunted by the task of responding. Others consider it a reflection of what is acceptable in society. And then there are some on the fringe, like the killer of a guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, who use such content as justification for murder.

The work of the ICCA Task Force will continue, and the group will help to fashion recommended responses to Internet hate, such as education, counter-speech and an increased role for Internet intermediaries to exercise their right to maintain a civil Internet.  Likewise, it is hope that the UK government will keep in mind that with an open internet comes a duty to fight online hate.

Christopher Wolf is co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combatting Anti-Semitism Task Force on Internet Hate – a pro bono role he has assumed as a partner at Hogan Lovells US LLP