Two new cases of cyber racism – one in Moscow, the other in Denver – are both making news for the way that they highlight new forms of racism and for the way that they challenge our ideas about free speech.
In Moscow recently, A 21-year-old received a one-year suspended sentence for forming a racist group on the popular Vkontakte social network. In Russia, forming a racist group on their equivalent of Facebook was illegal because it violated Russia’s anti-extremist laws. This kind of action on a social networking site is not viewed as “free speech” worthy of protection. So, what about in the U.S.?
Just last month, a former City of Denver employee Joel Pousson, 46, a former clerk at the City and County of Denver’s planning department, was arrested in August after authorities traced a racist, hate-filled e-mail to a computer in his Littleton home. Poussan, who is white, allegedly sent the email to an African American woman who works as a Human Resources Manager on the same day Pousson was notified that he was being terminated. In the email, Pousson repeatedly called the HR Manager a “n***” and suggested that she was now being targeted by the KKK (a very brief excerpt: “Because now the Klan has your name and address. And there are plenty of Klan members needing stroke with the klan. … Call it an initiation And the sheet-wearing ghost that takes you out, he gets a lot of rank.”) The reason that Pousson’s email was not considered “free speech” is that both the State of Colorado and the City of Denver have laws against “Ethnic Intimidation/Threats,” and Pousson’s email was prosecuted under this law.
Whether it’s a group organizing online or an individual sending email, the promotion of racism in the public domain threatens the sense of safety and security for those who are the targets of such cyber racism. Sometimes, it can also be the precursor to racially motivated violence. But, even if there’s no explicit threat of violence, racial hatred promoted online runs counter to the ideals of racial equality liberals say they value.
Yet, in the U.S. there’s very little dialogue about cyber racism, in part I think because of the liberal tenet that hate speech just an unfortunate consequence of free speech, even though that’s not true in Europe and other western democracies. And, free speech according to most of the leading intellectuals writing about the Internet, is considered the highest ideal, as in a post today by Tim Wu at The Chronicle of Higher Ed. In the piece (which previews a new book he has from Knopf), Wu deftly connects the early crusades against Hollywood movies by Catholics to current efforts to limit speech on the Internet by pressuring technology firms:
These firms are already under strong pressure to censor from powerful governments, religious groups, political parties, and essentially any outfit with a reason to want information suppressed. The Turkish government, for example, demands that Google take down mockery of the nation’s founder, not just in Turkey, but everywhere. The Church of Scientology has never stopped demanding of anyone who will listen to remove criticism of its practices from the Internet, usually claiming copyright infringement.
Wu’s assessment, like that of Mike Godwin and other cyberlibertarians, about the importance of free speech is flawed because it rests on an analysis of information as existing apart from political and social context. In such an analysis, “information” on the Internet is content free and should all be treated the same. I do agree with Wu, however, when he writes about what managing speech looks like today:
This is what speech management looks like in 2010. No one elected Facebook or YouTube, and neither one is beholden to the First Amendment. Nonetheless, it is their decisions that dictate, effectively, who gets heard. What’s the answer? There is no easy answer. Monopolies like Google, Facebook, and Hollywood have certain advantages: That’s why they tend to come into existence. That means the American public needs to be aware of the dangers that private censors can pose to free speech. The American Constitution was written to control abuses of power, but it didn’t account for the heavy concentration of private power that we see today. And in the end, power is power, whether in private or public hands.
While Wu evokes “power” at the end of this passage, he doesn’t go quite far enough in his analysis of how power shapes what constitutes information. Here, Wu is trapped within the same larger (white) frame as other scholars writing about the Internet without considering race. Within this frame, all “information” is the same offers no mechanism for evaluating claims for racial or social justice against the protection of free speech. Such a supposedly value-neutral frame for discussing free speech as separate from a social and political context systematically disadvantages some members of society and while it privileges others. To go back to the two cases of cyber racism I discussed at the top of this post, seeing all speech as neutral “information” would then mean that the racist group organizing online in Moscow and the racist email sender were both entitled to have their speech protected to defend the right to free speech.
Taking a stand against cyber racism isn’t a threat to the future of free speech. I don’t think we have to defend racist groups online in order to value free speech. And, I don’t think we have to defend the actions of people like the guy in Denver who sent the racist emails in order to value free speech either.
Outside the U.S., other democratic nations have taken seriously Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. This article requires countries such as Australia, NZ, the UK and Canada which are parties to the Convention to “declare an offence punishable by law all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred…and also the provision of any assistance to racist activities.” However, complying with this article in the global, digital era is no easy task.
Writing about the Australian context on today’s JWire, Peter Wertheim has a smart column in which he notes the difficulties of battling cyber racism across national boundaries when the U.S. acts as a haven and Internet companies (ISP’s) are recalcitrant, even proud, of hosting racist content. Wertheim writes:
ISP’s lack the knowledge and insight into racism to enable them to make an informed decision about whether a particular publication has crossed the line into racial vilification or harassment. More to the point, web-sites often generate advertising revenue for their owners, and the owners pay the ISPs. In social media platforms, the more viewers and discussion, the more advertising revenue can be created, and this advertising revenue usually goes directly to the platform provider. ISP’s and platform providers have a clear commercial interest against any form of regulation, and in being as permissive as possible. The final decision about whether or not to allow an allegedly racist publication to remain on the net should not rest with them.
Ultimately, even though the law is not the whole answer to cyber racism, it must be a critical part of the answer. Without the ultimate sanction of the law, the scourge of cyber racism will continue to grow unchecked. Like other contemporary scourges, such as terrorism and environmental degradation, cyber racism operates across national boundaries and governments acting individually cannot deal with it effectively.
Wertheim’s observation that Internet companies “lack the knowledge and insight into racism” to enable them to know what to do when faced with racist content is an astute one. I’ve worked in the Internet industry and I don’t think that the people there are evil, but have never learned to think critically about race or racism. Unlike that MCI commercial from the 1990s, the advent of the Internet has not meant “here – there is no race.” In fact, the advent of the Internet means that we need to be smarter about the new forms of racial hatred – like cyber racism – rather than dismissing them as just the price we pay for free speech.
As Werthiem points out, the law can’t be the whole answer but it “must be a critical part of the answer” is spot on, I think. And, as Wu notes, these decisions are already being made by those at the helm of Facebook and YouTube.
Cyber racism is a real problem of the Internet era but we shouldn’t confuse taking action against it as a threat to the future of free speech. In fact, it’s quite possible to balance free speech and concerns about cyber racism. Indeed, we must in this global, digital era.
Updated 11/16/10 @ 5:18PM ET: Just saw this on Twitter via @hopenothate: The BBC reports that in the UK, a man has been jailed 15 months for uploading racist video clips calling for a “racial holy war” on YouTube. Local law enforcement officials are quoted in the piece as saying: “Publishing something that is abusive and insulting and that is likely to stir racial hatred is against the law and [law enforcement] will work with the police to prosecute robustly anyone who does so.” This is not a threat to free speech, but rather recognizes that free speech has to be weighed in the balance with protecting the rights of those who are targeted by racist speech.