Governing Racist Content on the Internet: National and International Responses

By Akdeniz, Yaman | University of New Brunswick Law Journal, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Governing Racist Content on the Internet: National and International Responses


Akdeniz, Yaman, University of New Brunswick Law Journal


INTRODUCTION

Racism and the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred was a pressing social problem long before the emergence of the digital age. The advancement of communication technologies such as the Internet has, however, added a new dimension to this pressing problem by providing individuals and organizations "with modern and powerful means to support racism and xenophobia". (1) Long before the Internet entered our homes, racist groups made use of other communication tools including the telephone networks from as far back as the 1970s. For example, the Western Guard Party, a white-supremacist Neo-Nazi group based in Toronto, Canada, had a telephone answering machine which was used to propagate hatred, (2) and was the subject matter of a long legal dispute. (3)

Concerns about "digital hate" date back to the mid-1980s along with the documented use of computers, computer bulletin boards and networks to disseminate racist views and content. (4) New methods of dissemination of anti-Semitic and revisionist propaganda about the Holocaust (including video games, computer programs and the Minitel system in France) were noted by a United Nations (UN) Secretary-General report in 1994, (5) and the growing use of modern electronic media in international communications between right-wing radical groups (computer disks, databanks, etc.) was recorded in 1995. (6) But officially the use of electronic mail and the Internet was first observed as a growing trend amongst racist organizations to spread racist or xenophobic propaganda in 1996. (7) The United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, in his 1997 report declared that:

   The Internet has become the new battleground in the fight to
   influence public opinion. While it is still far behind newspapers,
   magazines, radio and television in the size of its audience, the
   Internet has already captured the imagination of people with a
   message, including purveyors of hate, racists and anti-Semites. (8)

It was predicted that the dissemination of racist content would increase with the rapid growth of Internet use around the globe. Easy and inexpensive access to the Internet, as well as the development of the World Wide Web, provided new and ready opportunities for publishing and this extended to material of a racist nature. (9) Flyers and pamphlets that had traditionally been distributed locally by hand and had limited visibility could now be distributed and accessed globally through the Internet. The "slow, insidious effect of a relatively isolated bigoted commentary ... has now changed to a form of communication having a widespread circulation." (10) In time, this type of content would be presented in more attractive high quality formats including that of online racist videos, (11) games (12) and cartoons; as well as music, (13) radio, and audio-visual transmissions.

The use of the Internet as an instrument for the widespread dissemination of racist content can be traced to the mid-1990s. The Simon Wiesenthal Center identified a single website in 1995, (14) and approximately 70 websites disseminating racist content in 1996. (15) Ten years later, it has been estimated that there are more than 5,000 websites in a variety of languages which promote racial hatred, anti-Semitism, violence and xenophobia around the world. (16) A 2005 study by the Simon Wiesenthal Center entitled Digital Terrorism & Hate 2005 reported a 25% increase in such websites compared to 2004 which indicated that the problem of racism and xenophobia was growing over the Internet. (17) A similar estimate was made by Gabriel Weimann, whose research revealed more than 4,300 websites related to terrorist organizations and purposes in 2004. (18) The estimated number of websites which promote racial hatred and violence reached over 6,000 in May 2006 according to the Digital Terrorism & Hate 2006 report. …

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