internet-sexism-illegalBelgium’s just banned sexism from the Internet!

Hurrah! The vile social cancer is banned from our lives forever. Mind you, I’m not entirely sure how successful said banning is going to be.

I need to explain a little about how the law affects there here Internet. It’s not where something is said, composed, hosted, written or uploaded that provides us with the relevant legal jurisdiction. It’s where something is read that does. So if Belgium has made sexism illegal then all of us (not that any of us us would ever be sexist) can be guilty of said sexism if we are read in Belgium.

It’s Volokh over at the Washington Post that spots the original law:

Penalization of Sexism

For the purposes of this Act, the concept of sexism will be understood to mean any gesture or act that, in the circumstances of Article 444 of the Penal Code, is evidently intended to express contempt for a person because of his gender, or that regards them as inferior, or reduces them to their sexual dimension, and which has the effect of violating someone’s dignity.

Anyone found guilty of [such conduct] will be punished with a prison sentence of one month to one year, and a fine …, or one of these penalties alone….

Of course, as above, we can all celebrate this imposition of a sexism free society. And the original tipster makes the interesting observation that under Belgian law accusing someone in public of a crime, if they have not been convicted of that crime, is in itself a crime. So calling someone out as being sexist is now a crime if they’re not already been tried and found guilty.

But there’s another problem with this and it concerns the way that libel law works. And yes, it is clear that this sort of law will work along the same lines as those about libel and defamation with respect to legal jurisdictions. The problem being that what defines where someone is libelled (or here, where they have been sexist) is where is the reader? No, not where is the writer, the printer, the publisher, host or anything else. Dow Jones lost a case in Australia on this very point. They published in New York, it was read by someone in Australia who claimed it libelled him and the Oz courts agreed, this was something that should be heard in the Oz courts, not those of New York.

This also isn’t some strange new thing about the Internet. It’s been a long standing feature of English libel law that it matters not one whit where a magazine or book was published. If it arrives (even against the author’s or publisher’s wishes) in England then it is as potentially libellous as anything else published in England. This was the basis of the Rachel Ehrenfeld case. It might be true that one’s native courts will not enforce any judgement, it might well be that no one is ever going to be extradited to Belgium to face charges of sexism. But that is, formally, how the law actually works.

That someone in a jurisdiction reads or observes something that is libellous, sexist or whatever, means that the offence itself has been committed in that jurisdiction. Thus by making sexism a crime, or at least the expression of it a crime, in Belgium, Belgium has thus made the expression of sexism anywhere on the Internet a crime.

Excuse me but I’ve got to go clean up various comment sections….

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]