Internet forums work as a space for discussion on basically any given topic. Lately, however, immigration has been a particularly hot subject matter on many sites. What is currently causing heated debate is the shield of anonymity on these virtual discussion boards.

AS MANY as one in five Finns log in to the ubiquitous Suomi24 internet forum once a week, and have now amassed a staggering 50 million messages. And they are not alone; Helsingin Sanomat’s message boards receive 200,000 visitors per week, compiling several tens of thousands of messages. A similar number use the message boards of Ilta Sanomat, while dozens of other small forums exist, covering everything from knitting and horoscopes to politics and immigration.

Comments on a variety of topics can cause even fierce debate online, and recently politics and immigration have served as widely disputed subject matters amongst anonymous contributors on different forums. The very idea of anonymity, which protects people behind even the most atrocious comments, has proven to be a real hot potato when thinking about the freedom of speech on these discussion forums and the democracy of the internet. At the same time, however, it is a given fact that hardly anyone contributes to these sites under their real name.

Who is liable?

The debate over internet forums is currently going on vigorously. Some of the chief questions are surrounding the issues of liability, control and anonymity.

• Currently internet forums that work as a place for free conversation by anyone willing to contribute are not liable for what is written on their sites due to the fact that these sites do not fall under the laws of official internet publications. However, individuals who contribute on these sites are bound by the Finnish law and are liable for any illegal action.

• In the case of so-called official internet publications, such as online newspapers and magazines, the editor is liable for all material published on the site.

• The Finnish Ministry of Justice is currently considering whether the administrators of internet forums should be made liable to supervise and delete any illegal or racist messages that appear on their website. The decision is due to be made next autumn.

Internet communication

According to research conducted by Statistics Finland last year, 27 per cent of Finns said they had contributed to some internet forums in the past three months. The research also revealed that the number of contributors is constantly rising and half of the contributors are between the ages of 25-44 years. With discussion threads in the politics section of Suomi24 gathering as many as 2,000 comments and a staggering 40,000 readers, any move to limit the current anonymity of posters is bound to be hotly contested.

Discretion and consideration are not always in evidence on hommaforum.org, an anti-immigration forum and bastion of local right-wing populism, which has recently become the target of considerable discussion about the way in which topics such as racism are handled on discussion forums.

“The comments range from blatantly racist views to rational and passionate argumentation in favour of tighter immigration policy,” Mikko Joronen of the Finnish League for Human Rights told SixDegrees. “In Homma Forum, there is very rarely – or ever – any outright incitement to or promotion of racist violence.”

Should we be worried?

“I don’t think there is a need to be worried about the existence of sites like Homma. However, there is a reason to be somewhat concerned about how much media interest sites such as Homma receive – without any critical reflection upon the content of the messages posted on the site. It is as if all critical views on immigration – no matter how unfounded – are valid and sound arguments that need to be dealt with in the media – for the sake of unbiased reporting,” Joronen says.

Accordingly, it is the lack of critical reflection of the general public and the journalists in particular that is cause for concern, not the existence of the sites themselves. “The most important issue in all this is one’s ability to engage in critical reflection regarding the comments and the material found on the internet. However, limitations on the extent to which users’ anonymity can be used to protect those inciting racial violence remains a difficult issue.”

Joronen doesn’t believe it to be sensible to attempt to control what is said on the internet in a comprehensive manner. “Penal Code provisions should be stringently applied to the material on the internet whenever necessary, but there are grounds to argue that any further control imposed by the authorities is bound to prove futile. Voluntary ‘codes of conduct’ on the part of administrators and ISPs is a different story.”

Arto Nieminen, the President of the Union of Journalists in Finland (UJF) believes that the media has managed its own discussion sites well enough. “I’m not sure new legislation is the answer. Part of the internet’s character is to supply a place for anonymous discussion about things people could otherwise not talk about. I can’t follow everything that goes on of course and I’m sure the discussions on these sites are not always discrete, but I don’t believe that this is a serious problem. I think that the problems exist on the free discussion pages that are not moderated at all.” It may well be that at some point in the future forum hosts will be asked to do just that, moderate more carefully what goes on in their sites – much as YouTube have been cajoled into policing the content provided by their own users.

Online debates

That said, the overwhelming majority of discussion forum content is less a threat to the law than to common sense. Political debates online are typified by one liners and barbed insults, and rarely contain anything approaching strong or reasoned debate.

But perhaps the most disturbing incident of Finnish online racism was the Facebook page in which several hundred Finns claimed they would happily do prison time for killing Minister for Immigration Astrid Thors. She was not the only one on a death list however; at one time the internet hosted lists with death threats to a number of Finnish politicians. Still, Thors was forced to close her website in 2007 after continued attacks and abuse. She immediately took legal action, and the man who started the group will more than likely face criminal charges. The fact that several hundred Finns joined the group in a matter of days exposed a vicious streak in a society in which grassroots populism often seems to have more in common with 1950s xenophobia than 21st century hate speech.

David Brown,
Petra Nyman