Experts gathered in Paris on Wednesday seeking a common approach to combating racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic propaganda on the Internet, believed to be a chief factor in rising numbers of hate crimes.
Officials from more than 60 countries were attending the two-day conference aimed at finding ways to keep racist information off the Web without compromising free speech and freedom of expression.
The dilemma, acute because the Internet is both global and tough to regulate, was shown by the widespread and illegal sharing of music online that has confounded record companies. Terror groups have also used the Internet to plot attacks.
Officials in countries like France, which has experienced a surge in anti-Semitic violence in the past several years, are pushing for tougher regulations to curb online hate speech.
"We are at a particular, 'hinge' moment in our common fight against intolerance," French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said in opening remarks to the conference.
"Our responsibility is to underline that by its own characteristics — notably, immediacy and anonymity — the Internet has seduced the networks of intolerance," he said.
France has noted a "clear relationship" between racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic propaganda and hate crime, he said.
U.S. Assistant Attorney General Dan Bryant acknowledged the American approach differs from that of other countries.
"We believe that government efforts to regulate bias-motivated speech on the Internet are fundamentally mistaken," Bryant said. "At the same time, however, the United States has not stood and will not stand idly by, when individuals cross the line from protected speech to criminal conduct."
Bryant said the United States believes the best way to reduce hate speech was to confront it "head on" by promoting tolerance, understanding and other ideas that run counter to racism.
Many conference speakers said part of the problem was that Web sites with anti-Semitic or racist propaganda are often housed in the United States.
And, experts noted, there are signs that the problem of online hate is getting worse.
Barnier cited a recent report in Britain that showed the number of "violent and extremist sites" had ballooned by 300 percent in the last four years in 15 OSCE countries surveyed.
In Denmark, a computer virus tracking company said Friday that junk e-mail with right-wing slogans in German hit computer users in three countries claiming that foreigners were bilking social security and bankrupting public health services.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 55-country body that promotes security and human rights, organized the conference with French government backing. Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia have also sent envoys.
The meeting is one of three OSCE conferences on anti-Semitism and racism this year. Berlin hosted an anti-Semitism conference in April and a meeting on racism is scheduled in Brussels in September.
Organizers said the meeting is primarily designed to lay out alternatives for cooperation, but that an agreement was not likely by Thursday's closing sessions.
By Jamey Keaten