The Council of Europe is pushing to extend the Cybercrime Convention to impose criminal sanctions on what it considers to be unacceptable forms of political or religious expression. The Cybercrime Convention was originally negotiated to respond to transnational problems such as theft of data, breaking into computers, computer-based financial fraud and the like. But now the Council is engaged in bulk unsolicited emails to promote the idea that web site content that is insulting or xenophobic is a cybercrime of the same order.
The bulk emails were sent to promote an April 1st meeting in Strasbourg, where the Council will promote its “Additional Protocol concerning the criminalisation of acts of a racist and xenophobic nature committed through computer systems.” Note the less than honest language: what the Council is targeting are not harmful “acts” of racism or xeonophobia, but the distribution of “written material, ideas or theories” which “insult publicly, through a computer system, (i) persons for the reason that they belong to a group distinguished by race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, as well as religion, if used as a pretext for any of these factors; or (ii) a group of persons which is distinguished by any of these characteristics.”
There is, of course, legitimate grounds to sanction incitement to violence, particularly when there is a clear and immediate connection between a speech act and physical acts of violence. But most of the “Additional Protocol” is not concerned with acts. And transnational authorities are not in a good position to prevent or respond to such acts.
The protocol also proposes to ban any discourse which denies or “grossly minimizes” officially designated acts of genocide. The CoE pays frequent lip service to the ideals of freedom of expression. It is disappointing to see that they don't really believe in it. Essentially, the Council proposes a strategy of global censorship to respond to misguided ideas. Instead of refuting these ideas and mobilizing people against them, it wants to forcibly suppress their expression or lock up the people who voice them. The CoE proposals are based on the idea that governments can establish truth, and can legitimately suppress any expression of ideas or theories that dispute or fail to conform to the officially designated truths. This is a method that has no demonstrable record of success, but inevitably brings major chilling effects and spillover restraints on legitimate forms of political expression. It is likely, for example, that both the Danish newspaper cartoons that offended many Muslims AND the expressions of outrage by Muslims that resulted from publication of the cartoons would have been considered illegal under such regulations. An international effort to censor Internet discourse based on such standards, if applied consistently and systematically, would result in an incredibly burdensome and interventionist state and lead to widespread self-censorship. More likely, the power would be used in inconsistent and discriminatory ways to suppress unpopular views and minorities. CoE is engaged in a futile attempt to use the blunt instrument of censorship to promote social peace and civil discourse. It won't work.
You can express your opinion to the Council of Europe by emailing Estelle Steiner at Estelle.STEINER@coe.int