By CHRIS BARTON



Should Winston Peters be banned online? If New Zealand was one of the 44 countries comprising the Council of Europe, the question would have to be asked.



This month the council adopted a new protocol to the Convention on Cybercrime which requires member countries to criminalise "the dissemination of racist and xenophobic material through computer systems, as well as racist and xenophobic-motivated threat ... "



The protocol defines racist and xenophobic material as "any written material, any image or any other representation of ideas or theories, which advocates, promotes or incites hatred, discrimination or violence, against any individual or group of individuals, based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, as well as religion if used as a pretext for any of these factors".

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It also covers online "racist and xenophobic-motivated insult" - which refers to "any offensive, contemptuous or invective expression which prejudices the honour or the dignity of a person".



But if you go to Peters' website you won't find any of the above - or at least I couldn't. All the wording, while laden with xenophobic - and possibly racist - sentiment, doesn't explicitly deliver a racist or xenophobic insult or threat.



Explicit affronts are relatively easy to deal with, but racism and xenophobia between the lines are far more problematic. And insidious. As United Future's leader Peter Dunne points out, Peters' discourse is not unlike that of pre- World War II Germany.



In this light, it's hard not to imagine anyone with xenophobic tendencies making New Zealand First's website their homepage. It's possible that racists, perhaps misunderstanding New Zealand First propaganda, would also find sanction in Peters' words. Is it only a matter of time before one such explicit hate group hyperlinks to www.nzfirst.org.nz?



But even if it could be shown that Peters' web rhetoric was attractive to xenophobes and racists, the site itself - once removed from such an odious position - would probably still be immune from the Council of Europe's anti-xenophobic protocol. Which begs the question: should xenophobes and racists, not to mention Holocaust deniers, be banned in cyberspace at all?



It's a debate that gained momentum last month thanks to the filtering actions of the major search engine Google. You won't find anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi, white supremacy, or the anti-abortion Jesus-is-lord.com on google.fr (France) and google.de (Germany) - although you will find them on google.com (United States).



That's because publication of Holocaust denials and incitement of racial and ethnic hatred is illegal in Germany, which has at times ordered internet providers to block access to US sites that feature revisionist material. It's similar in France where a student antiracism group was able to win a case against Yahoo for allowing Third Reich memorabilia and Hitler's Mein Kampf to be sold on the company's auction sites. But last November a US judge ruled that the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech protects Yahoo from liability - which is why google.com still carries sites banned by its European counterparts.



But, strangely, you'll find it darn hard to find the anti-scientology site Xenu.net, using a "scientology" search under google.com. That's ever since Google took down a large number of references to Xenu after it received a copyright-infringement complaint from the Church of Scientology. Which goes to show that even in the US, rights to free speech can be compromised by intellectual property laws and censor ideas in much the same way as the Council of Europe's new protocol.

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But while there are many approaches to reducing the impact of bad thoughts online - from well-meaning cyberlaws, to filtering, to cease and desist orders - it's hard to see how any of them can ever be totally effective in a medium such as the net.



I'm also of the view that ideas - however distasteful they may be - are better seen than sent underground. Although I do agree that many of the abhorrent kind should reside only in the most marginal of the web's marginal zones. And as for Peters, well, I'm dying to see the parody site.



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