The Special Rapporteur’s 2019 report to the General Assembly is now online.
“Hate speech”, a shorthand phrase that conventional international law does not define, has a double ambiguity. Its vagueness and the lack of consensus around its meaning can be abused to enable infringements on a wide range of lawful expression. Many Governments use “hate speech”, similar to the way in which they use “fake news”, to attack political enemies, non-believers, dissenters and critics. However, the phrase’s weakness (“it’s just speech”) also seems to inhibit Governments and companies from addressing genuine harms, such as the kind resulting from speech that incites violence or discrimination against the vulnerable or the silencing of the marginalized. The situation gives rise to frustration in a public that often perceives rampant online abuse.
In a world of rising calls for limits on hate speech, international human rights law provides standards to govern State and company approaches to online expression. The present report explains how those standards provide a framework for Governments considering regulatory options and companies determining how to respect human rights online.
Indeed International human rights law should be understood as a critical framework for the protection and respect for human rights when combating hateful, offensive, dangerous or disfavoured speech. Online hate speech, the broad category of expression described in the present report, can result in deleterious outcomes. When the phrase is abused, it can provide ill-intentioned States with a tool to punish and restrict speech that is entirely legitimate and even necessary in rights-respecting societies. Some kinds of expression, however, can cause real harm. It can intimidate vulnerable communities into silence, in particular when it involves advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility, discrimination or violence. Left unchecked and viral, it can create an environment that undermines public debate and can harm even those who are not users of the subject platform. It is therefore important that States and companies address the problems of hate speech with a determination to protect those at risk of being silenced and to promote open and rigorous debate on even the most sensitive issues in the public interest.