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Defining the Line Between Internet Racism and Free Speech

With the government considering proposals to fine-tune legislation on hate crimes and Internet racism, experts are debating how much you can criminalize and restrict Internet commentary without infringing on free speech. Laws are also trying to clarify who can be held accountable for criminally racist content on websites and chat rooms.

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Image: YLE

At the moment, one of the few clear-cut rules is that people who create web content intended to incite violence against a group of people can be charged under criminal legislation.

The debate gets much more complicated when lawmakers try to define who’s responsible for racist comments on chat rooms, or whether service providers and bloggers can be charged with distributing racist content if they did not create it, or even if they did not know it existed on their sites.

"At the moment, the service provider could theoretically get charged with incitement to racial hatred if they are not taking away racist material. But it's very unclear and we don't have any cases on this topic,” says Senior Officer Yrsa Nyman, from the Office of the Ombudsman for Minorities.

Can Government Legislate Away Racism?

This year, a working group at the Ministry of Justice wrote up a proposal to tighten and clarify laws on racism and particularly hate crimes on the Internet. The deadline has passed for the government to give its official feedback on the report.

At a seminar on net racism in Helsinki on Monday, the chairman of the steering group, Illari Hannula, outlined some of the basic changes they proposed.

“There would be the criminalisation of a public incitement to violence as well as the distribution of material that was racist or spread hatred of foreigners,” says Hannula. He specified that this would mean that simply posting a link to racist material would be a criminal act.

“But criminalisation cannot infringe on the constitutional right of free speech,” he notes.

Critics say anti-racism laws are already undermining free speech, and that their ambiguity means that people don’t even know if they are breaking the law.

Helsinki city councilman Jussi Halla-Aho, who’s drawn ire for his strong criticism of immigration, feels the discussion of net racism is absurd.

“Incitement to violence and libel are already criminalised in Finnish law. They are criminalised in the Internet and outside the Internet,” says Halla-Aho.

“We have a very lax definition of racist crime, which is not good. Anything can be criminal. No one knows in advance if what he’s about to do is criminal, and this is a very big problem.”

Legislation is Half the Solution

Ali Qasim, who is the Chairman of anti-racism organisation Enar-Finland, says the solution to Internet racism is both legislative and social.

"Legislative answer a little bit helps. You have a border which you cannot cross. And once you cross that border, you know that you face a problem,” he says “But the social answer is important too. A successful integration policy will help.”

Qasim himself has been the frequent target of racist hatred. He says he regularly receives threatening phone calls and emails when he publicly speaks out against racism.

“Racism has always been an issue, but you have to face it and tell the truth.”

Fighting Fire with Fire

Police say they treat Internet racism just like any other Internet crime. If it exceeds the threshold of a crime, they investigate. But the problem is the global scope of the Internet. If one racist site is kicked off a Finnish server, it may open up on a foreign one. When this happens, the police have to get the co-operation of foreign officials to pursue the matter.

Another option is to prevent, or at least mitigate, the spread of racist web content by combating it with equally powerful anti-racist content.

Racist groups abound on social media like Facebook, IRC Gallery and Habbo Hotel, where many youth spend time. But these are also excellent opportunities for anti-racist messages to gain a following.

“It’s important to note that anti-racists groups are also very popular on Facebook and IRC Galleria,” notes Satu Kanninen, from NoRa, the No Racism project run by Save the Children Finland.

NoRa runs successful monthly Internet chat sessions where youth can talk, under the direction of a moderator, about racism and prejudice.

Qasim also points to countries like Denmark, where there are strong anti-racists communities online.

Sources: YLE

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