no. 2 July 1996


The governance of cyberspace: racism on the Internet

'The Internet has revolutionized communications, bringing enormous benefits. But we cannot afford to ignore its negative aspects-the potential to spread "hate" material that not only offends, but seriously threatens racial harmony and public order.'
David Capitanchik and Michael Whine

David Capitanchik is Strategic Development Executive at Aberdeen College with responsibility for overseeing the college's IT facilities. He is a member of the Management Committee of the Aberdeen Metropolitan Area Network, which provides high-speed access to the Internet for educational and research institutes in the north of Scotland. He is Honorary Senior Lecturer in Politics at Aberdeen University. His publications includeThe Changing Attitude to Defence in Britain (1982), Defence and Public Opinion (joint author: Richard C. Eichenberg) (1983), 'Terrorism and Islam' in Noel O'Sullivan (ed.), Terrorism, Ideology and Revolution (1986) and 'Non-Parliamentary Opposition in Great Britain' in Eva Kolinsky (ed.), Opposition in Western Europe (1987). He is a frequent radio and TV commentator on terrorism and Middle East affairs.

Michael Whine has been Director of the Defence and Group Relations Department at the Board of Deputies of British Jews since 1986. He regularly lectures and broadcasts on antisemitism and terrorism.




  1. The Internet debate
  2. The far right and the Internet
  3. The Internet as a means of communication
  4. Terrorism on the Internet
  5. Regulating the Internet
  6. Conclusion
  7. An Internet policy


The potential of the so-called 'super-highway' to inform, educate, entertain and conduct business on a worldwide scale has caught the imagination of millions. At a relatively modest cost, and often at no cost at all, vast quantities of data can be transmitted around the globe - a mutimedia form of communication combining all hitherto known means such as printing, the telephone, photography, radio and video. All that is required is a relatively cheap personal computer, a telephone line and a modem or connection to a cable operator.

Among other things, the Internet has provided a vast range of political parties and pressure groups with the unprecedented opportunity to disseminate their publications and messages to an international public, and even to interact with them on a one-to-one basis. The benefits of the Internet, it must be said, far outweigh its negative aspects. Nevertheless, these cannot be ignored.

In this Policy Paper, David Capitanchik and Michael Whine consider the current debates about free speech on the Internet and the issues raised by its exploitation by antisemitic and racist groups. Much attention has focused on the presence of pornography on the 'net', especially in the so-called 'First Amendment' controversies in the United States. However, in most European countries and around the world, incitement to racial hatred is also a criminal offence. To many, its appearance on the Internet is just as disturbing.

Although it has received less attention than pornography, 'hate' material, in the form of attractive Web pages and discussion groups or sent by e-mail, not only offends, but also seriously threatens racial harmony and public order. The Internet provides far-right groups with the means to communicate and organize, as well as to distribute neo-Nazi material which is illegal in jurisdictions other than that of the United States.

The Internet has now emerged from the university laboratory into the public domain and the numbers of those with access to its various facilities are booming. Access to the Internet is provided for the domestic user by major international companies as well as in universities, colleges, and increasingly in schools.

This Paper concludes that because of its ubiquitous nature and, above all, its appeal to young people, it is essential now to formulate an Internet policy. It proposes a number of policy recommendations for organizations in the public, private and voluntary sectors which provide access to the Internet.

An Internet policy

What has clearly emerged both from this Paper and discussions with experts is that any policy designed to restrict, control or remove from the Internet material which is either illegal or repugnant must take account of some key principles:

Policy proposals for immediate implementation

  1. We urge the adoption now - by those in the public, private and voluntary sectors who own, control or manage institutions - of an interim Internet policy and accompanying code of good practice, pending the development of a more comprehensive policy (see recommendation 8). This policy would determine what materials can legitimately be accessed on their computers. We are not recommending that there should be a statutory requirement for such a policy. Instead, it would be similar to other initiatives such as policies which many institutions already have in place to provide for equal opportunities in employment or to regulate substance abuse. Indeed, institutions could adapt their policies relating to race and discrimination and extend these to cover the Internet.
  2. Education authorities - as the initial base for public education - should take the lead in introducing an interim Internet policy. They have a particular responsibility for ensuring that they do not permit access to materials via the Internet that they would not consider suitable for their library shelves.
  3. The policy should be reinforced by the use of so-called 'blocking software' which either only permits access to certain materials and denies access to everything else, or which permits access to everything except certain proscribed material.
  4. Where open access is permitted, the criteria upon which any controls should be based should first be to exclude any material which is illegal (e.g. in England and Wales falls under the Obscene Publications Acts 1959 and 1964, Computer Misuse Act 1990, incitement to racial hatred legislation included in the Public Order Act 1986, etc.). Second it should exclude material which is designed to offend or contradicts other policies such as those relating to equal opportunities, substance abuse, etc.
  5. The underlying principles upon which any exclusion policy should be based would be those which by regulation or custom govern the acquisition of materials for any libraries. In the case of some institutions, universities for example, special regulations already exist restricting access to certain materials.
  6. In the Internet policy attention should be paid in the first instance to the graphical World Wide Web rather than the so-called news groups, bulletin boards, etc. Many organizations already exclude such groups from their servers altogether or allow access to a limited few. However, it is the increasingly professional and well designed pages of the World Wide Web which give cause for concern. Their content cannot readily be refuted or debated as can the content of news groups, which anyway are essentially forums for discussion and debate.
  7. Relevant groups should be widely consulted about the terms of any policy.
  8. Longer-term proposalsWe recommend the establishment of a body to develop a comprehensive policy and accompanying model code of practice on Internet access for institutions in the public, private and voluntary sectors. Ideally, this body would be international in scope and might properly be under the auspices of an organization such as the Council of Europe or UNESCO. National bodies would also be required, and in the UK, an organization analogous to the Press Complaints Commission or Broadcasting Standards Authority should be set up. Such bodies would monitor the dissemination of racist and pornographic material on the Internet and would investigate complaints. They should also consider a broader range of issues such as challenges to privacy versus freedom of expression, and copyright versus freedom of information.
  9. For purposes of standardization, on the national level, education authorities and bodies such as the Committee of Principals and Vice-Chancellors of the Universities of the United Kingdom should be involved. In the private sector, business organizations such as the Confederation of British Industry and Chambers of Commerce should be involved in devising guidelines for employers. For them the issue is urgent because of the increasing commercial use of the Internet for advertising and the need for companies to observe prescribed advertising standards. However, given the global nature of the Internet and the multiplicity of different legal, moral and ethical systems involved, it is difficult to imagine that there could be any international agreement to control its contents. However, such agreement should be possible on a European level where the responsibility for setting guidelines could lie with agencies such as the Council of Europe.
  10. As the Internet becomes more widely accessed internationally, police and similar authorities should be granted resources, currently not available to them, so that the surveillance they normally exercise over extremist groups can be extended to cyberspace.
  11. We believe that Internet service providers have an obligation to prevent access, via the services they offer, to material which is either racist or pornographic. In view of this, we recommend that such service providers should be regarded as 'publishers' rather than 'common carriers' like the Post Office. Procedures should be established by the watchdog body referred to in recommendation 8 above to ensure that service providers continue to prohibit access to such material once they have been put on notice.

© Institute for Jewish Policy Research 1996