European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)

Legal instruments to combat racism on the internet



The following general conclusions, which are based on the report on legal measures to combat racism on the Internet prepared for the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) by the Swiss Institute of Comparative Law, were adopted by ECRI at its 22nd plenary meeting (13-16 June 2000) and transmitted by ECRI to the European Conference against Racism (Strasbourg, 11-13 October 2000).

1. The Internet is a powerful tool for combating racism and intolerance on a worldwide scale. It offers an unprecedented means of facilitating the cross-border communication of information on human rights issues related to anti-discrimination. The use of the Internet to set up educational and awareness-raising networks in the field of combating racism and intolerance is a good practice which should be supported and further developed.

2. However, alongside these positive uses, the Internet also represents a source of concern, in that it is being used by individuals and groups to disseminate racist messages, inciting to intolerance and racial and ethnic hatred.

3. ECRI commissioned the Swiss Institute of Comparative Law (Lausanne) to carry out research into existing legal measures to combat racism on the Internet. This research demonstrated that the Internet, like any other means of communication, does not fall outside the scope of the law. The real cause for concern is not so much that there is an absence of relevant legal provisions, as the fact that the very nature of the Internet may block their full implementation. In particular, the diffused structure of the Internet, its pervasiveness and the possibility it affords for anonymity, may render difficult the enforcement of legal provisions.

4. Having studied the findings of the aforementioned study, ECRI underlines the necessity of making a distinction between the function of access provider and that of host provider and of clearly establishing their respective responsibilities. While the access provider should be held liable for illegal content of which it was aware and which it had not blocked, the host provider should have a wide duty of diligence as regards especially those sites which it hosts anonymously and free of charge.

5. ECRI, for its part, stresses the importance of including the issue of combating racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance in all current and future work at international level aimed at the suppression of illegal content on the Internet. ECRI recalls that the fundamental principle of respect for human dignity calls for the fight against dissemination of racial hatred and against incitation to racial hatred.

6. ECRI is aware that the way in which the balance between the freedom of expression and the right to protection against racial discrimination is managed differs widely between countries. It is also aware that many racist sites originate in the United States. ECRI is of the opinion that a dialogue should be initiated with all providers, particularly US providers, in order to discuss measures to counter racist sites. Such measures, which could be entered into on a voluntary basis by providers, might include blocking sites, a filtering system or refusing anonymity to the authors of sites.

7. ECRI is furthermore convinced that the control of parties working in the Internet field, such as access and host providers, should be based to a large extent on self-regulatory measures. In this respect, ECRI encourages the development of codes of conduct to which all such parties could subscribe.

8. ECRI considers that the prosecuting authorities in most European countries are not adequately trained to deal with the problem of the dissemination of racist messages via the Internet and that concerted efforts should therefore be made in this direction. A further problem is that of inefficient international legal co-operation on this issue. Ways should therefore be found to strengthen such international co-operation and mutual assistance between the law enforcement services across the world.

9. In this respect, ECRI is of the opinion that the setting-up of a co-ordinatory body, which would act as a permanent monitoring centre, mediating body and partner in the preparation of codes of conduct, would be a positive step forward.

10. ECRI stresses the need for more active awareness-raising among the general public concerning the problem of the dissemination of racist messages via the Internet. Special attention should be paid to raising awareness among young Internet-users – particularly children – that they may come upon racist sites and the potential risks of such sites.

11. ECRI fully supports the anti-racist initiatives which already exist on the Internet and strongly encourages co-operation between existing anti-racist web sites, as well as the development on the net of new sites devoted to the fight against racism and intolerance.

12. ECRI is of the opinion that strengthened co-operation between the member States of the Council of Europe on the issue of the dissemination of racist messages via the Internet and the harmonisation of their national practices on this subject would be a welcome addition to the range of activities already underway to combat racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance. Member States might wish to send a strong message at the European Conference against Racism in October 2000, in the context of the European preparations for the World Conference which is to take place in October 2001: the message being that the European region is determined to take action to ensure that the Internet is not used to racist ends and to develop rather its potential as a tool for intercultural communication, understanding between the peoples of the world and the spread of a universal human rights culture.