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The trouble with regulating hatred online

Industry Standard

July 25, 2000
Web posted at: 10:58 a.m. EDT (1458 GMT)

(IDG) -- The Internet has revolutionized the business of hate. There are anywhere from hundreds to thousands of Web sites with racist or otherwise hateful content. For hate groups, the Net is a cheap and easy way to reach vast audiences under a cloak of anonymity.

"The lunatic fringe might be on the fringes, but they understand the power of the Internet as well as anyone in society," says Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which tracks hate groups. The center estimates there are more than 2,300 "problematic" Web sites, including more than 500 extremist sites authored by Europeans, but hosted on American servers to avoid stringent antihate laws in Europe.

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HateWatch, a small East Coast group that tracks hate sites, figures there are 500 such sites on the Internet. Its research director, Brian Marcus, draws a line between methodical operations of organized groups and pages that feature racial epithets but little else. "That's not a hate site; that's graffiti on the wall," says Marcus.

While some would like to see new laws to deal with these sites -- wherever they are and as many as there may be -- the U.S. constitutional right to free speech protects most of them. Some European nations, however, lack the same free-speech standards. So, like other Internet policy issues such as data privacy and encryption, Europe's standards on hate speech clash with American ones. It's another instance where there's little or no consensus on how to govern this global medium.

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When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995, perhaps the only hate site on the Web was Stormfront -- a white-supremacist site run by Don Black, a former Ku Klux Klan leader who picked up some computer skills while serving a federal prison sentence in the 1980s. Stormfront has since become the grandfather of dozens of sites that espouse hatred of blacks, gays, Jews and women, deny the Holocaust and rail against abortion.

"A few years ago, a Klansman needed [to put out] substantial effort and money to produce and distribute a shoddy pamphlet that might reach a few hundred people," says Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which also monitors hate groups. "Today, with a $500 computer and negligible costs, that same Klansman can put up a slickly produced Web site with a potential audience in the millions."

Even one hate site is one too many in countries such as Germany, which has criminalized the posting of Nazi propaganda and related materials. The German constitution, written in the aftermath of the Third Reich, contains weaker speech protections than the United States' First Amendment. Moreover, German authorities are zealous about combating more than just neo-Nazism online.

In 1995, Bavarian prosecutors raided the offices of CompuServe's German subsidiary, charging the company with failing to block access to child-pornography sites. The head of the subsidiary was convicted and fined in 1998, though the conviction was reversed on appeal after the company argued that it couldn't totally block access. That key point demonstrates how the Internet's fluidity defies national norms.

The Wiesenthal Center sponsored a conference last month in Berlin, where German government officials called for a set of international rules to govern online speech. The European Commission is already studying how to develop such standards, but it's not likely it will get the international cooperation it seeks, especially from the U.S.

American companies so far have been willing to make small concessions. For example, Amazon.com agreed to stop selling copies of Mein Kampf to German readers after the German government objected. But the European drive to bar online Web content hasn't put a dent in the First Amendment protections those sites enjoy in the United States " nor is it likely to do so, given the American legal tradition of protecting even the most extreme ideas.

To make matters worse, hate is branching out into e-commerce, with some sites selling music, clothing, jewelry and literature. The White Heritage Emporium sells jewelry, including a swastika "Good Fortune" pendant, T-shirts and Confederate flags.

And while many ISPs refuse to host hate sites, Black sees a market opportunity: He now sells Web hosting services through Stormfront. Nazi regalia, such as daggers, uniforms and photographs, is regularly auctioned on eBay and Yahoo. Indeed, Yahoo has been sued in France, which has a law against exhibiting or selling objects that represent racism. Yahoo France filters out such objects, but the company has defied a court order instructing it to block French Web surfers from accessing the auctions through the portal's other sites. Its lawyers are expected to tell the French court that it's impractical for an Internet company to globally comply with the laws and standards of hundreds of different countries.

And that's the heart of the dilemma. National laws used to be buttressed by geographic barriers, customs inspectors and the like. But innovation has been eroding national barriers for decades, and the Internet has eroded them even further. There's no easy solution to prevent content, from the mundane to the shocking, from reaching every Internet surfer, regardless of geography. German xenophobes, for example, can easily have their Web sites hosted from the States, which in turn can be accessed from anyplace.

"If you want the Internet to come into your country, you're going to have to live with some of its openness," says Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington think tank. "You can't bureaucratize it."

For now, Europe hopes to make do with a filtering system being developed by the Internet Content Rating Association, a nonprofit British group that's partnered with AOL Europe and the Bertelsmann Foundation, among others. But ICRA's system hinges on the voluntary adoption of a ratings system by content providers. It's hard to imagine hate sites agreeing to rate themselves.

Yahoo's involvement with online hate doesn't end with its auction site. The company hosts dozens of online chat "clubs" devoted to neo-Nazism and other such causes, despite a clause in its user agreement that forbids "hateful or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable" content. Yahoo spokesman Mark Hull says the company investigates complaints and deletes grossly objectionable clubs. But it's done case by case.

"We're trying to promote inclusiveness and a wider range of free expression," adds Hull. He points out that not all chat clubs are as objectionable as they might appear at first glance. For example, a group called "Skins on Skates" turned out to be nothing more than a klatch of skateboarders with shaved heads.

Other ISPs, such as EarthLink, have a hands-off policy toward objectionable content. "We're pretty much Switzerland," says EarthLink spokeswoman Kirsten Hamling. "We don't monitor what people do, we don't watch where they go." She notes that EarthLink does police itself for obviously illegal content. Yet even if ISPs such as Yahoo and EarthLink completely purge xenophobic content, Stormfront is always waiting in the wings.

The difference between protected and unprotected speech in the United States boils down to whether the speech is a direct, credible threat against a specific target, or a direct incitement to imminent illegal action. There have been prosecutions of online hate speech that appear to cross the line. However, they're usually conducted under the rubric of federal civil rights or fair housing laws.

Last year, a jury awarded $107 million to plaintiffs in a case involving the Nuremberg Files, a Web page that listed names and addresses of abortionists and accused them of crimes against humanity. Three of the doctors were murdered, and their names were crossed out on the page. MindSpring shut down the site, only to be sued for breach of contract by the site's operator, who meanwhile released a CD-ROM version of it.

In two federal cases, university students have been convicted of civil-rights violations for sending threatening e-mails to minority groups at their schools (thus interfering with the students' attendance at a public college). In 1998, Richard Machado was convicted of sending threatening e-mail to 60 Asian students at the University of California at Irvine. Last year, Kingman Quon, a California State University at Los Angeles student, pleaded guilty to civil-rights charges and was sentenced to two years in jail for e-mailing threatening messages to Hispanic students, professors and others across the country. And earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development settled a housing discrimination complaint against a white supremacist for allegedly using the Web to harass a fair-housing advocate who also served on a hate crimes task force. HUD is funding a national task force that will study online hate speech in a series of meetings nationwide.

The SPLC's Potok and other antihate advocates contend the Net makes it easier for racists to find each other. The Web removes the need for face-to-face proselytizing and recruiting; xenophobes can now meet and spread their messages globally from the comfort of their homes. They can also reach unlikely new audiences. Black's 11-year-old son, Derek, runs Stormfront for Kids, which includes topics such as Pokemon and videogames, alongside a "history of the white race" and Confederate flag graphics.

Marcus of HateWatch adds that some online hate groups resort to Internet hacking, ranging from e-mail spoofs and denial-of-service attacks to domain name "Webjacking." Some sites even offer downloadable hacking software.

Yale Edeiken, a Pennsylvania historian who rebuts Holocaust deniers, says he has been harassed since 1988. In the wee hours of July 9, several state troopers visited Edeiken's home. They were investigating an online post, apparently by Edeiken, that vowed to destroy an Allentown, Pa., abortion clinic. He didn't send the message, but he has a pretty good idea who hijacked his e-mail address. He'd already launched a civil suit to stop the harassment. The police were "absolutely worthless," grumbles Edeiken, who says the cops wouldn't act on threats alone.

Hatred online won't be eradicated with harsh laws, aggressive software filters or even cybersquatting, which is practiced by some antihate groups. A better method is unflinching exposure and examination. Robert Hilliard, a communications professor at Emerson College in Boston, is planning a fall seminar called "Hate.com." Hilliard says the class is already so popular that it's overbooked.




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