Legal Experts say self-regulating web intermediaries set limits of free speech

Law Center, ADL host panel on the law and cyberhate.

Marvin Nathan ’66 introduces panelists Christopher Wolf, left, Jeffrey Rosen, Peter Molnar, and Judson Hoffman before a discussion on cyber hate and law on the internet at the University of Houston Law Center.

Marvin Nathan ’66 introduces panelists Christopher Wolf, left, Jeffrey Rosen, Peter Molnar, and Judson Hoffman before a discussion on cyber hate and law on the internet at the University of Houston Law Center.

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Oct. 5, 2012 – The boundaries of free speech today are largely defined by Internet intermediaries that decide which uploads among millions are acceptable and which constitute hate speech, according to panelists in a University of Houston Law Center discussion of law on the Internet.

It is an enormous and somewhat subjective task that can have repercussions locally and around the world, they agreed during the presentation – Racists, Bigots and the Law on the Internet --hosted by the Law Center and Anti-Defamation League Thursday afternoon in Krost Hall. Deadly demonstrations in response to a video posted on YouTube, “Innocence of Muslims,” and all-too frequent individual acts of violence attest to the influence the Internet, and specifically hate speech, can exercise over people, they said.

“Lawyers, and Google, and YouTube, and Facebook, and Twitter, have more power over who can speak and who can be heard than any president, judge or monarch,” said Jeffrey Rosen, law professor at George Washington University. Christopher Wolf, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Hogan Lovells and founder and chairman of the ADL Cyberhate Response Task Force, noted that Facebook announced its one billionth user that morning and is self-regulated as to what they see and post.

Rosen noted that hate speech is extremely hard to regulate in the United States unless there is clear intent to incite immediate violence. He said standards of what takes a posting to that level vary. He related how he went to the California headquarters of Google several years ago and watched a group of 22-year-olds in T-shirts and flip-flops as they decided what was and wasn’t appropriate.

Judson Hoffman, global policy manager for Facebook, said times have changed. Facebook has four highly trained teams, each specializing in issues of nudity, safety-harm, hate-harassment, and abuse with operations on three continents, he said. They are given specific, objective guidelines to review questionable material. As an example of the volume, he said, more than 200 million photos are uploaded daily, with two million flagged by users and submitted to his team for review. Hoffman said standards have evolved in recent years from material that was just offensive to that which is really harmful. He said Facebook has found that people denouncing offensive speech actually outnumber those who produce it.

“The Internet is an amazing tool that also has come to be a means of communication among haters,” said Wolf, who also serves as co-chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combatting Anti-Semitism on the Internet Task Force. The Internet has promoted the “dark underbelly” of mass communication, he said, affording the mask of anonymity similar to the hoods of the KKK in years gone by. “Words have consequences and they often go on to spur violence,” he said.

Peter Molnar, a senior research fellow at the Central European University Center for Media and Communication Studies in Budapest, noted that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights grants restrictions on speech when necessary “to protect the reputations and rights of others.” Hate speech law also includes harm done to groups, but Molnar said cases have swung wildly from country to country despite the unified code across Europe.

“Facebook is pushing for global standards,” Hoffman said, “because state and national boundaries don’t exist on Facebook.” Rosen agreed, saying it would be good in the U.S. if standards to protect citizens’ cyberspace were as strong as the constitutional standards that have protected real space for so many years.

Marvin D. Nathan, former chairman of the ADL’s National Civil Rights Committee and a 1966 graduate of the Law Center, had opened the proceedings by noting that the ADL’s National Director AbrahamH. Foxman has often said, “The concentration camps of World War II didn’t start with bricks, but with words – ugly, distasteful words that eventually poisoned the society and gave rise to institutional hate, discrimination, bigotry and ultimately violence and death.” The antidote, he said, is not legislation or judicial action, but good speech and education. 

The panel discussion was underwritten by the law firms of Nathan Sommers Jacobs and Berg & Androphy

Click here to watch a video of the event.

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