As European leaders move to ban internet hate speech and seek support from the United States, civil liberties groups charge that the proposal would violate free-speech rights.

The Council of Europe comprises 44 European countries plus a handful of non-European nations. Canada, Japan, Mexico, South Africa and the US have observer status only, but their comments are sought.

The council recently voted to outlaw "acts of a racist and xenophobic nature conducted through computer systems". The measure was added to the Convention on Cybercrime, criminalising hacking, intellectual property violations and use of computers to commit fraud. The first set of rules was signed in November 2001.

Now non-European members are being asked to endorse the hate-speech provision at a meeting in late January.

But this is where the ban runs into trouble. The country where the website is located would have to enforce the ban, regardless of where the complaint came from, so without global support it cannot hope to be successful.

In the US, the Department of Justice has already indicated that it won't support broader restrictions which might be incompatible with American's rights to free speech.

The agreement defines racist and xenophobic material as "written material, images or other representations of ideas or theories advocating, promoting or inciting hatred, discrimination or violence against individuals or groups, based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin, or religion".

Death to speech

While this might sound like a good idea, commentators in the US are not convinced. "It's inherently dangerous for governments to define what appropriate speech is. You can't define or limit speech without killing speech," believes James Gattuso, a research fellow for conservative thinktank the Heritage Foundation.

Epic (the Electronic Privacy Information Centre) suspects that the protocol is aimed at right-wing racist speech, says Sarah Andrews, Epic's research director. She thinks it targets white supremacist or antiabortion groups. A separate proposal on revisionism would prohibit speech about Holocaust denials, she notes.

But either ban is drastically contrary to the US practice of protecting even hate speech.

The Council of Europe's original Convention on Cybercrime in 2001 also contained a hate-speech measure, but it was dropped at the last minute to gain support from the US which signed the treaty along with 29 other countries. But for the treaty to become reality, the members must enact laws in their own countries.

Nations have been slow to ratify the treaty; so far only two Council of Europe members — Albania and Croatia — have executed the treaty's provisions from one year ago.

Ratification in the US requires action by the Senate, which has not happened.