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Unboxing Hate Speech “European Impulses for Respect and Solidarity on the Web” Towards Democratic Coexistence: how the Council of Europe is fighting hate speech

Digital Conference 18 February 2021
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Hate speech is an insidious phenomenon.

It is used not only to slander, stereotype and demonise:

But also to drain people’s confidence, self-belief and capacity to act, so that they are inhibited from expressing themselves fully and from contributing to society on an equal basis.

Everyone loses from this.

Hate speech is not of course a new problem.

History is littered with examples of this practice, sometimes with terrible consequences.

But in Europe today, it is on the rise.

Over recent years, monitoring reports and other work by Council of Europe bodies has shone a clear light on this.

Roma, national and religious minorities, migrants and refugees, and LGBTI people are among the minorities that are so often targeted.

We have found that victims can lack a proper understanding of their rights;

That they are often reluctant to report the hateful rhetoric that they encounter;

And that Roma and LGBTI people in particular have faced additional attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What makes hate speech different today is the means by which so much of it is spread.

In many respects social media and the internet have widened our horizons.

For many, they have increased access to information, generated opportunity and prosperity, and provided a new means by which people can exercise their freedom of expression:

Sharing their views and joining groups and networks that previous generations never dreamed possible.

But this has also handed a virtual megaphone to those who wish to cause hurt and pain, and allowed them to do so with anonymity.

The degree of sexist hate speech online is a stark example of this, one that often intersects with other discrimination.

All of this must be addressed - by individuals, governments and international organisations alike.

But we are not starting from scratch.

Over the years, the Council of Europe has done a great deal of work in this area.

We are clear about the importance of freedom of expression, as outlined by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights:

And that it applies even when it may offend, shock, or disturb.

However, we are equally clear that while this right is fundamental, it is not absolute.

Case law from the European Court of Human Rights has found hate speech to violate the victim’s right to private life under Article 8 and that vehement hate speech is incompatible with the values proclaimed and guaranteed by the European Convention.

The Court has applied Article 17, on the “prohibition of abuse of rights”, and found that such vehement hate speech is not protected by Article 10.

On this basis, the Court has emphasised that authorities have a positive obligation to use “all available means” to combat racism.

And this includes racist speech.

So, action is not merely possible: rather, it can be required.

With this in mind, and drawing from the findings of its country monitoring, ECRI – our European Commission against Racism and Intolerance - has drawn up a General Policy Recommendation on combatting hate speech.

This is for use by all 47 of our member states.

It makes clear that while legislative frameworks are necessary, they are not enough.

Governments must ensure that hate speech laws are implemented scrupulously and at all levels;

They must identify and remove conditions in society that are conducive to hate speech, including by raising public awareness, providing education and establishing counter-narratives;

They must protect and support those who are targeted;

Promote self-regulation and regulatory action;

And withdraw support and prohibit organisations that use hate speech.

In addition, the Council of Europe has put in place a range of awareness-raising activities.

Take for example, our online HELP courses on hate crime and hate speech.

These are designed to ensure that lawyers and others understand the law and are better placed to implement it.

Similarly, our No Hate Speech Movement campaign was designed to inform and mobilise young people:

A 45 country-wide network of committees that equipped young people to tackle online abuse with positive expression that promotes human rights and democracy online.

And, last year, this became an independent European network that continues to make progress.

We have also included an anti-hate speech dimension in specific aspects of our work.

Our Recommendations on gender equality and the media, and on preventing and combating sexism;

Our current Strategic Action Plan for Roma and Traveller Inclusion;

  1. recently-appointed Special Representative on antisemitic, anti-Muslim and other forms of religious intolerance of which the horrific attacks in Halle and Hanau are cases in point.

And our Convention on Cybercrime and its Additional Protocol concerning the criminalisation of racist and xenophobic acts committed through computer systems.

All of these are relevant.

So too is our Recommendation to member States on the roles and responsibilities of internet intermediaries.

Relevant, but not enough.

We know this from the rising tide of hate speech in Europe, which is enabled in part by the continuing uncertainty over what can be done to tackle hate speech online – and who should do it.

This is a highly complex area.

The nature of the internet makes it hard to assign liability and to develop legal and practical measures.

There are questions around territorial jurisdiction, including for search engines registered abroad and for global social networks.

And the establishment of causal harm, the difficulty of content being legal in one country but not another, and the use of pseudonyms by those posting harmful material - These are just some of the issues that continue to cause difficulty.

It would be easy to shrug our shoulders and say that this is simply too difficult to address.

Easy, but wrong.

The online environment is international.

And Europe’s human rights laws apply across our common legal area.

So, it is the Council of Europe’s duty to apply them.

A multilateral approach is required.

And we are ready for that challenge.

This year, we will finalise a draft recommendation for continent-wide use.

The draft will be subject to public consultation over the summer and then submitted to our Committee of Ministers.

But its purpose is to provide a comprehensive approach to addressing hate speech, including in the context of the online environment, and within a human rights framework.

It will clarify the definition of hate speech;

Make clear who is responsible for identifying and monitoring it;

And outline the necessary legal framework covering criminal, civil and administrative law, including the regulation of internet intermediaries, with due respect to all standards of the Convention. 

There will also be non-legal measures including awareness-raising, education, and victim support.

And on co-operation between national and international stakeholders too.

But, at its core, this is about establishing different layers of liability, and the measures and strategies that governments, internet intermediaries and others should follow.

It will answer long-standing questions and get to the heart of the problem in stamping out hate speech.

We are determined to get this right.

That’s why the recommendation is being drafted by a new Committee of Experts on Combating Hate Speech.

They are drawing on the specialised expertise of our Steering Committees on Anti-discrimination and Inclusion and on Media and Information Society.

But they are also working with other international organisations, including the European Union.

And they are open to learning from national experience, including content moderation initiatives such as the German Network Enforcement Act.

These and relevant civil society initiatives are acting as a laboratory of ideas that can only strengthen the evidence-based recommendation that our Committee of Experts will produce.

In this area, the conclusions of June’s Conference of Ministers Responsible for Media and Information Society will also be important.

Among the resolutions it is expected to adopt are one on freedom of expression and digital technologies;

And another on the changing media and information environment.

It is also right to point out that we are developing specific guidance for member states governments and other actors on human rights compliant “legal and procedural frameworks for the restriction or moderation of illegal or harmful content”.

This too is crucial in effectively addressing hate speech in the online environment.

A further, clear statement of our intention to make progress.

So, I thank the German authorities for taking the initiative of organising this event.

It is a demonstration of the seriousness with which they take the topic;

A statement of their commitment to the Council of Europe’s work in this area;

And an opportunity for me to urge all of you to contribute your thoughts not only today but also when it comes to elaborating our draft recommendation.

It is a great sadness that hate speech is spreading in the year 2021.

But there is no doubt that modern technology is fanning the flames.

Together, we can provide the solutions required, make the internet a safer space, and extinguish hatred both online and offline.

Thank you.