In the Home Affairs Committee last week, a baffled Yvette Cooper politely and repeatedly asked Peter Barron, a spokesman for Google in Europe, ‘In what circumstances is “Jews admit organising white genocide” not a statement of hate speech? ‘ The response from Google was as follows:
Peter Barron: There is no clear definition of hate speech in British law. We have our own guidelines around hate speech. The guideline that we follow, which is very close to the law, is that a general expression against a country, for example, wouldn’t qualify as hate speech, but if you are promoting or advocating violence against a particular group based on their race or ethnicity, that would constitute hate speech. … I am not going to defend the content of the video; I found it abhorrent and offensive. However, the important question, which relates to wider issues of freedom of expression, is whether that content is illegal and whether it breaks our guidelines. Our policy and legal experts arrived at the conclusion that it didn’t. I think everyone in this room would agree that it was deeply distasteful.
Chair: But your own guidelines say that it is “not acceptable to post malicious, hateful comments about a group of people solely based on their race” or religion or so on. How on earth is the phrase, “Jews admit organising white genocide”, as well as being clearly false, not a statement that is a malicious or hateful comment about a group of people solely based on race, religion or the other protected characteristics that your own guidelines and community standards say are unacceptable?
Peter Barron: The test that our legal and policy experts are looking at is whether there is an incitement to violence against a particular identified group. I accept that these are borderline cases; we often see debate among our teams. The conclusion in this case was that it didn’t break our policy guidelines.
The response from Google seems to have divided commentators. One one hand, there are those who defend the principles of free speech – among them Spiked Online, which calls Yvette Cooper the ‘Witchfinder General’, and the editor of the Jewish Chronicle. On the other, there are many, most obviously the members of the Home Affairs Committee, who find this difficult to take.
Barron’s assertions that there is no definition of hate speech, and the argument that the content is not illegal, are mistakes. The expression “hate speech” may not be used in UK law, but ”incitement to racial hatred” is, and incitement to hatred is criminal. There are many things that people are not allowed to say in the UK – among them laws of public and private libel, incitement, conspiracy and sedition. Even in the USA, ‘The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.’ (That comes from Schenck v. United States, 1919.) There is a common confusion about the nature of free speech; it is not the freedom to say whatever one pleases, any more than freedom of movement means an unlimited freedom to swing your fist.
Google’s misreading of the law comes about because it has referred to the laws relating to racial hatred in the USA rather than laws in Europe. Hate speech in the USA is protected by the First Amendment; to be criminal it has to be coupled with the threat of violence, and in general it will be charged only when it occurs in tandem with another offence. As the threat of violence is already an offence, that reduces the status of hate crime to an aggravating factor, rather than a cause of action in its own right. That’s why the Internet hosts other material, much worse than the example discussed in the Home Affairs Committee, which more or less says, get these people before they get you (and no, I’m not going to post the links to the examples I’m thinking of, or even to identify the three words in Google that will bring them up). It seems that Google is able to take down links and caches of sites questionably accused of infringing copyright, but not of sites that openly breach European laws on racial hatred.