In the last few days, there have been two stories in the news which highlight the very different approaches to hate online in the U.S. and in the U.K. The story from here in the U.S. involves a racist image of Michelle Obama (drawn to look like an ape). The image first appeared online because someone posted it on their blog (the image has since been removed from the blog). Once the image was online, it quickly appeared at the top of Google’s results when anyone did a Google-image search for “Michelle Obama.” Whether or not this was a result of a “Google bomb” (an intentional manipulation of Google’s algorithm) or just a fluke, remains the subject of some debate. Those on the right in the U.S., such as FoxNews, are pointing out that this Google bomb was quickly diffused, unlike Bush’s Google bomb. For it’s part, Google (the leading search engine company based in California), bought ads warning users about “offensive results” and apologized, yet still claims no responsibility for the images appearing in Google search results.
Mostly, though, opinion in the U.S. about this incident follow along the line of this piece in the AtlanticOnline (a mainstream to left publication). Derek Thompson writes:
The Internet is unwieldy boundlessness of content, some of which is utterly depraved. But that’s to be expected when you’re talking about the sum of all knowledge and information in the world. Racist images aren’t illegal. And researching examples of racism online isn’t only legal, it’s can also be useful for journalists, social academics and anybody trying to piece together fragments of the zeitgeist. Google isn’t the editor in chief of the internet, it’s a curator. It’s job is to organize and I hope it doesn’t delete or de-index content just because it’s offensive — and especially not because it’s offensive to important people.
And, Thompson is correct in his assessment of the U.S. landscape around these issues. The bind, of course, is in the line I’ve highlighted in bold there above: Racist images aren’t illegal here in the U.S. This one fact makes taking other sorts of action difficult, but not impossible. And, the reason these images are not illegal in the U.S. is that many people here want to argue that the First Amendment, which is designed to protect dissent against the government, protects all manner of racist speech. Or, in the line of reasoning above, the Internet simply contains too much information for it to be possible to ever regulate it. But, the right to free speech and being indexed by the search engine Google are two different things. As one of the commenters after that piece at the AtlanticOnline points out: being on the Internet and being indexed by Google are two different things. No one has a constitutionally protected right to have their online content indexed by Google.
Let’s take a look at another example from the U.K. Two men were convicted for publishing racist hate speech, including “Tales of the Holohoax.” These postings of online hate were reported to the police in 2004 after concerned citizens saw them. This action is possible in the U.K. because it is against the law to incite racial hatred either in print or online. The two men were sentenced under U.K. law to four years and two years in Leeds Crown Court in July, 2009. The story is back in the news now because the two men are appealing their convictions saying that the websites, which were hosted on servers in the U.S., would be “entirely lawful” here. And, they’re right. Effectively poinitng out that the U.S. functions as a haven for hate online.
What’s still unclear is how the courts will rule in this case.