British ISPs Crack Down on Hate

Published: 2000-01-25

5:30 p.m. 25. Jan. 2000 PST

Internet service providers in Britain announced new self-regulatory content policies aimed at removing racist material from the Internet on Tuesday.

The Internet Watch Foundation, an industry-funded self-policing body, said it will begin cracking down on "potentially criminal" hate content.

The new brief expands the authority of the watchdog organization, which was initially set up in 1996 as part of an agreement between the industry and the government that focused on child pornography.

The agreement protects British companies from prosecution for carrying criminal content on their site if they comply with IWF's requests.

"It's primarily a gentleman's agreement not to prosecute ISPs if they're doing their best to comply with the law," IWF CEO David Kerr said.

The agreement provides for the IWF to investigate individual complaints submitted on its hotline. If it decides the material could be deemed criminal under British law, it will ask the ISP to remove the site, Kerr said.

While the ISP is not required to comply with their request, the company will lose its immunity from prosecution, Kerr said. IWF also reports each potentially criminal case to the police.

Last year, the Home Office asked the organization to expand its authority to include racist content, Kerr said. "With the growth of Internet use, the Home Office has certainly become more aware of these issues [of online racism]," he said. "And certainly there's been some media coverage as well."

The recent push to crackdown on hate content is part of a broader government policy to encourage ecommerce in Britain, Kerr said. "It's part of the government's interest to encourage public trust on the Net," he said.

But some civil liberties groups in the United Kingdom are worried about the dangers of such self-censorship.

According to Internet Freedom founder Chris Ellison, the IWF practices "a form of silent censorship."

"This material has not been proved to be criminal," Ellison said. "The IWF doesn't refer things to the courts. It just tells the ISPs to remove the material and they comply."

The IWF says the organization has been successful in removing 10,000 items related to child pornography since its inception.

"The organization has already demonstrated its ability to force material off the Web," Ellison said. "Now they have a new category of criminal material that extends their ability to censor."

But IWF said that companies have little interest in removing material that is not criminal. "We are not a campaigning organization, and we don't have a moral or social agenda," Kerr said. "Our aim is to stay on the right side of the law."

Kerr admits that IWF may find it more difficult to make judgments about hate speech.

"With child pornography, not many would contest our judgment," Kerr said. "But [racist speech] is an area where legislation is not clear," he said. "A lot of the complaints we receive will be in that fuzzy area."

Kerr said the Public Order Acts, which ban speech inciting racist violence, have not been used much, and there are few precedents for prosecuting hate speech.

Kerr said the IWF intends to push the government to issue clear guidelines. We're not going to ask anyone to remove material unless government prosecutors "say they would be able to get a result in court," he said.

Ellison worries the government may be using the IWF to promote a politically correct agenda. "These people think certain forms of expression should just not be allowed," he said.

The IWF is also concerned the government may be using the organization to pass the buck. "Quite frankly, to an extent this is a hot potato for the government, and we are not going to allow them to dump it on us," Kerr said.

And that's why the IWF won't be targeting many sites in this area. "We don't expect a flood of sites to be taken down," Kerr said. "The several dozen sites that we are aware of are not illegal."

Issued by the Libertarian Alliance

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Author(s): Lakshmi Chaudhry
Title: British ISPs Crack Down on Hate
Published: 2000-01-25
First posted on CODOH: Jan. 23, 2000, 6 p.m.
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