Skip to main content

New Online Hate Crime Legislation May End Up Ineffective

How can the internet be made safer for vulnerable groups? Laws can influence norms, but the problem will not be solved by merely making it easier to take online haters to court.

A legislative proposal that the Swedish government is currently working on aims to restore the protection of people’s integrity, which has become weaker over the years due to the increasing opportunities to disseminate pictures and information online. But the proposed legislation is also meant to safeguard the public debate by reinforcing the freedom of expression for those who feel constrained by the risk of falling victim to online hate speech.

Women who participate in the public debate make up a particularly vulnerable group. Karin Olsson, culture editor and deputy editor-in-chief of Swedish newspaper Expressen, is no exception.

‘I don’t belong to those who want to cite haters to show how awful they can be. I don’t want to give them that power,’ she says, and points out that there are those who experience much worse attacks anyway.

Karin Olsson, culture editor and deputy editor-in-chief of Swedish newspaper Expressen.

Despite the fact that online hate speech has become a natural part of everyday life in her profession, Karin Olsson is one of few critics of the celebrated proposal.

‘There is a huge lack of competence in the police force regarding how to investigate crimes in the digital world. The defamation legislation could be used a lot more. There are obviously cases that may fall between the cracks, and there may very well be a need for some revisions. But these suggestions are too far-reaching and may have a negative impact on the freedom of expression,’ she says.

Under the proposed new legislation, the legal concepts of harassment and defamation will more clearly include crimes committed online and will therefore cover a large share of the online hate speech targeting journalists and other participants in the public debate. Unlawful threats will be expanded to also include threats to a person’s privacy and integrity, in order to cover for example threats of harassment. The new crime, labelled “unlawful violation of privacy”, criminalises the dissemination of pictures and information that may harm a person’s privacy and integrity. Revenge porn is a prime example.

‘The legislation has to be precise and must hold up in difficult cases. Imagine a situation with the Sweden Democrats in power. If that ever happens, we don’t want a legislation that limits the freedom of expression too much. I think we should be extremely cautious,’ says Karin Olsson.

The Swedish government has already launched an action plan for threats targeting journalists, elected officials and artists. But some of the worst violations on the internet are targeted to ordinary people, and mostly women.

The Legislation May Affect Norms

Daniel Edsbagge, chief public prosecutor in Uddevalla municipality, is one of those who have managed to achieve a conviction for revenge porn.

‘It really wasn’t so difficult as far as the investigation goes. But it is obvious that the present law was written in a pre-internet era,’ he says.

Daniel Edsbagge, chief public prosecutor in Uddevalla .

This summer, he had a man convicted of grave defamation for having disseminated nude pictures of his ex-girlfriend. The man was sentenced to probation and a SEK 30 000 fine. The sentences imposed for this type of crime have varied greatly and have not been proportional to the suffering that the victims have had to endure, according to Daniel Edsbagge.

‘This violation affected her much more than if she for example would have been beaten. She felt that it totally ruined her life. She quit her job because her colleagues had seen pictures of her genitals. She cut all contact with her parents, didn’t leave her home for several months and needed to see a counsellor. These are enormous consequences that are not matched in the current legislation.’

With the new law on unlawful violation of a person’s privacy, perpetrators of this type of crime will be sentenced to anywhere from six months to four years in prison, depending on the severity of the offences. Daniel Edsbagge believes that the legislation may help change the prevailing norms as it brings clarity to what is considered criminal behaviour and prescribes quite severe penalties for perpetrators.

Online Hate Speech Targeting Women Is Often Linked to Gender

Online hate speech is considered a democracy problem in all Nordic countries. In June, Nordic Information on Gender (NIKK) published a review of the national legislations from a gender equality perspective. Hate speech is criminalised in all Nordic countries and the laws protect certain groups. However, gender is not included in the legal framework in any of the countries, at the same time as research shows that online hate speech targeting women is largely related to gender.

The Danish adoption of a new law against sexual violations online earlier this year led not only to stiffer penalties but also to more resources being allocated to the police, instructions to schools to integrate the topic in their teaching and a large number of information and support measures. In Finland, the police have received funding to strengthen the work against online hate speech. In the Southwestern Finland Police Department alone, one of eleven regional police districts, this has led to the establishment of several new full-time positions in addition to the internet officers already specialising in online crimes.

In Sweden, the Police Authority writes in the documents underlying the legislative proposal that it will not need any additional resources. The Prosecution Authority estimates that it will need to fill one additional full-time position, but does not expect a rise in prosecutions large enough to necessitate increased funding for courts or public defence counsels. Due to the low expected number of convictions, the Prison and Probation Service does not believe it will need more resources. Despite the fact that more acts will be criminal, the lion’s share of the cost increase is expected to occur for what currently falls under grave defamation, meaning the most severe offences.

‘There may be reason to run special information campaigns regarding the new legislation, not least targeting young people,’ the commissioners write.

No such measures are planned, according to an email from Sofie Rudh, press secretary to Swedish Minister for Justice and Home Affairs Morgan Johansson.

‘Schools Need to Give More Attention to Online Hate Speech’

Unless the rest of society does its part, there is a risk that the new legislation ends up being ineffective, says Måns Svensson, sociologist of law and researcher at the Lund University Internet Institute.

Måns Svensson, sociologist of law and researcher.

‘Otherwise a situation may emerge where the law is only used in order to catch the most severe offenders, while teenagers continue their everyday harassment of each other as usual,’ he says.

People’s faith in the judicial system when it comes to this type of criminal activity is low, according to a research report on Swedish youth’s norms and behaviour in relation to online hate speech, which Måns Svensson co-authored and the legislative proposal makes reference to.

He believes that schools should give more attention to online hate speech.

‘I have heard school representatives say: “We make sure the kids behave while they’re at school”. This attitude is not sustainable, as the relations that schools create are not limited to the school environment. Bullied kids are victimised 24/7 – they are never left alone.’

Parents, too, should get more involved in how kids behave online, he says.

‘They need to get used to the thought that raising a kid in this day and age includes teaching them how to behave well online.’

Convinced That Adults Account for Half of All Online Hate Speech

Many parents are afraid their kids will do bad things online, and this fear sometimes leads to bad decisions that end up having the opposite effect, according to Elza Dunkels, educational science researcher and frequently consulted expert on young people’s online culture.

‘This hasn’t changed much in the 20 years I’ve been in the field. Every new generation of parents is just as worried as the previous one. When the children are so small their parents control their internet use, sometimes they don’t want to confide in their adults, and that’s serious from a safety point of view. It is important to keep calm,’ she says.

Elza Dunkels, educational science researcher.

Parents have an even greater fear of their kids becoming perpetrators of online hate speech than of them becoming victims.

‘It’s important to talk about the behaviour and not condemn the individual. Maybe tell them about own mistakes and allow for a dialogue around this difficult issue. And it’s also important to listen more than you talk. This is something adults often are bad at. When we talk to our children, it often becomes a monologue. And then adults often don’t know what to say. But they can say things like: “I heard about this. What do you think about it?” Almost all kids I have ever interviewed have been very excited to talk about these things.’

Elza Dunkels is often asked about how we can get young people to stop their online hate speech, but she is convinced that adults are responsible for at least half of all cases.

‘Nothing will ever change if all we do is take offenders to court, since it won’t change the hateful behaviour online per se.’

Elza Dunkels thinks that we all should ask ourselves: In what situations do I contribute to a hateful environment, even if I don’t do anything unlawful? What can I do to instead prevent it?

‘It’s all about how to think about other people. About not thinking in hateful ways.’

Updated 19 May 2022