There are growing concerns that Internet hate may incite violence and lead to physical hate crimes. The International Network against Cyberhate (INACH), which has members in eight OSCE participating States, calls the Internet "a virtual nursery for real-life crime".
Even where it is difficult to establish a direct causal link, there is no doubt that the Internet can be used to foster a climate of hostility against certain groups, as well as for fundraising and attracting sympathizers.
Getting the facts
"Very little research exists specifically on hate on the Internet," said Floriane Hohenberg, Adviser on Civil Society Relations at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). "The problem is developing fast, and in many countries law-enforcement agencies are struggling to keep up. Without further information on the scale of the problem, it is difficult to develop effective action.
This is one of the reasons why the ODIHR sees data compilation as extremely important in the fight against intolerance and discrimination, both on-line and off-line. The ODIHR serves as a collection point for information on hate crimes of all kinds, which allows it to monitor action taken by participating States and to recommend areas where legislation and enforcement need to be tightened.
It is currently developing an on-line database of this information, in addition to its practical initiatives for tackling hate and promoting tolerance, which will be launched in the autumn.
OSCE participating States are committed to combating hate crimes, in whatever form, through a number of agreements and conventions. Putting these words into practice, especially in the complex area of the Internet, requires a comprehensive approach that combines legislative reform, monitoring activities and response structures.
The member states of both the European Union and the Council of Europe - which include many OSCE participating States - have already taken legislative steps to criminalize and prosecute the perpetrators of cyberhate. In addition, all OSCE states have made commitments to examine their existing legislation for its effectiveness in regulating Internet content.
A useful way of building on this progress is to provide mechanisms for monitoring and reporting on-line hate. Part of the ODIHR's strategy is therefore to encourage the setting up of hotlines or complaints bureaux where members of the public can lodge complaints against offensive Internet material.
Successful models can be seen in countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, where organizations that form part of INACH have had offending material removed and websites closed down. INACH's findings also indicate that certain types of cyberhate are being underreported compared to the incidence of hate found, suggesting that some groups are either less aware of the problem or less able or willing to report it.
The ODIHR hosted an INACH workshop on Monitoring and Taking Action on Hate on the Internet in Warsaw in May. It was aimed at training non-governmental agencies in the eastern part of the OSCE region, where there have been few practical initiatives dealing with this little-understood problem.
Topics covered at the workshop included research techniques, legal aspects and how to set up a hotline. Participants were able to draw on the expertise of trainers from Germany and the Netherlands, who provided real-life case studies from their respective countries.
"It is vital that the spread of hate through the Internet is not allowed to go unchecked," said Hohenberg. "Hotlines are one of a number of measures that can be taken to encourage people to report cyberhate. Thanks to our recent workshop, participants from seven OSCE states now have the know-how to set up this kind of mechanism."