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World: Internet Conference Wrestles With Balancing Free Speech, Control

  • Breffni O'Rourke

An international conference took place in Paris to discuss the use and abuse of the Internet. Is this wonder of modern-day communication actually turning into a means of propagating mankind's age-old hatreds, such as racism, and political and moral extremism? If so, where lies the balance between free speech and control?

Prague, 17 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Delegates from more than 50 countries attended a conference in Paris that explored how to deal with the increasing flow of racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic material on the Internet.

The two-day conference, which ended today, sought ways to drive such socially destructive materials off the Internet, while at the same time preserving freedom of speech.

Sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the conference was held at the instigation of France's ambassador to the OSCE, Yves Dutrioux, who told RFE/RL that the flood of undesirable material on the Internet is worrying governments. "There is a growing frustration in participating states and civil society generally, regarding the growing number of websites on the Internet disseminating hate material, anti-Semitic or racist material," he said.

The ambassador said there is "no question" of restricting the free flow of information. He said moves to regulate Internet content should not be an "alibi" to curb freedom of expression. "Beyond the principle of freedom of expression, it is quite possible for us -- that is, participating states, NGOs, representatives of the [computer] industry and the governments -- to exchange good practices in order to better support the victims of these racist websites," Dutrioux said.

He said better education is needed -- among young people, teachers, policemen, lawyers and magistrates -- to help them recognize and combat criminality in cyberspace. And the Internet industry itself should voluntary act to close down websites that are clearly racist and which are "beyond limits."
There had been expected to be differences of view between the European delegates to the conference and the United States, given the traditionally harder American line in favor of individual free speech.


This is at the heart of the issue. "Beyond limits" can be seen as a subjective judgment. What is acceptable to some citizens is intolerable to others. To solve this problem, the ambassador resorts to the concept of the "right-thinking average man.” "The line is difficult [to find], but it it's like the question of what is, or is not, pornographic," he said. "When you see genuine pornography, then you [instinctively] recognize it as such, and it is the same for racism and anti-Semitism."

There had been expected to be differences of view between the European delegates to the conference and the United States, given the traditionally harder American line in favor of individual free speech. The chief of the U.S. delegation, Assistant Attorney General Dan Bryant, said, however, that there was much more common ground than there were differences.

And he said the U.S. position on free speech does not render it powerless to act. On the contrary, he said it is ready to act where there is criminality. "Not all expressions [of free speech] are, therefore, protected as viewpoints. You are not expressing a view when you make a criminal threat, which is specific and credible by any medium, Internet or otherwise. You are not expressing a view when you agitate and entice others to commit crimes," Bryant said.

Bryant praised the Internet as an instrument of good. "We think the Internet has enormous potential to equip people with knowledge, to enhance communications globally, to attack the ignorance and misunderstanding that are the fertile soil for intolerance," he said.

The Paris conference drew up a series of preliminary recommendations, which will be finalized at a conference in Sofia at the end of the year.
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