Web trackers hunt racist groups online
By Robin Lloyd
August 12, 1999
(CNN) -- The first white supremacist Web site went up more than four years ago but efforts by cyber-detectives to track the dozens of groups that have sprouted online are years behind.
The leader of the "hate trackers" is the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama -- considered by some to be the birthplace of the civil rights movement. There, Brian Youngblood heads up a team of 12 that monitors the material at more than 500 Web sites, mostly by hand, as well as a number of chat rooms and news groups.
"Search engines are great," he says, "but as I read they only pick up a third of the net. I pick up more sites by picking up links. Link, link, link."
White supremacist, neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, skinhead and Christian separatist organizations have signed up thousands of new members over the Internet, but those Web sites also make them more visible to groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The center's approach is not to beat the hate groups at their game. Instead, its focus is collecting a truckload of bytes that could someday be turned over to law enforcement for evidence in hate crimes.
Information from the center's database was used in a successful lawsuit against White Aryan Resistance leader Tom Metzger, who was held responsible for a 1988 Portland, Oregon murder of an Ethiopian immigrant. Though his followers committed the murder, a jury found that Metzger incited the crime.
The Internet has made online tracking of such groups both easier and harder, Youngblood says. It's easier to look at Web sites than to cull through print mailings and fliers, but the messages and messengers change quickly in the information age.
White supremacist groups gained more national attention this week with the arrest of a Washington State native, Buford Furrow. Furrow has been linked to white supremacist groups, including the Aryan Nation, The Order and Christian Identity.
He also is listed in the Southern Poverty Law Center's database, which could become crucial evidence in the charges brought against Furrow.
There has been an escalation of harassment and violence against Jews, says the center's founder Morris Dees. In 1997, 1,200 of 9,000 incidents involving hate were targeted against Jews, he said.
And the number of known "hate" sites on the Web has grown from one since the date of the Oklahoma City bombing, April 19, 1995, to up to 2,000, online trackers say.
Youngblood says sites put up by Stormfront and the World Church of the Creator are "pretty good" while those created by the Ku Klux Klan tend to be less sophisticated.
Stormfront, the pioneer in online white supremacy material, is less an organization than a portal for an Internet Relay Chat service, mailing lists, news servers and other reference material and social contacts.
The site got a lot of traffic from the start because it was the only one of its kind, says Don Black, who started the Stormfront Web site in 1995 and maintains it out of his home in West Palm Beach, Florida.
The site generally gets about 2,000 visitors a day, now up to 4,000 due to the fatal shooting by a white supremacist on July 4 in Illinois and now the Jewish community center shooting.
Stormfront.org started as a dial-in bulletin board service run on a single phone line in the early 1990s.
"With the exponential growth of the Net we were able to reach many thousands of people that we otherwise would never have been in contact with our publications and organizations," Black says.
The World Church of the Creator site includes a page outlining its "Internet Blitzkrieg," which aims to bring 400 hits a day to the site and for church members to recruit new members in chat room and post its web address wherever possible.
Matthew Hale, the church's leader, said the Internet outreach effort has received a great response. The Illinois violence, which put his church's name in the news as the shooter was affiliated with the church, has brought in more professionals and highly educated members, Hale says.
"I know that some people have asked if we're an Internet church. It's not but it does enable us to reach people all over the world," he said. The Web site went up in 1996.
The Southern Poverty Law Center documents those sites' every move, Youngblood says.
The Southern Poverty Law Center's West Coast counterpart is a program called Cyberwatch run by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. That group reports a higher count of hate groups on the Web -- more than 1,400 -- but does less work than Youngblood's team to be sure of which sites are active.
The Wiesenthal Center also recently released a CD-ROM with results of its ongoing study, the latest version of which is called Digital Hate 2000 and lists Web sites that promote racism, post instructions for bomb making and provide links to racist music.
Cyberwatch takes calls from citizens concerned about material they see on the Web who may be uncomfortable identifying themselves on the telephone.
The Wiesenthal Center is more focused than the Alabama operation on its own Internet presence -- its Web site has been visited by 1 million users and its affiliated educational outreach effort involves 2,000 educators.
The Wiesenthal Center shares its online white supremacist list with a number of companies, including This.com, which offers a search engine that blocks sensitive material for family-oriented users.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, assocate dean of the center, calls the Internet insidious, saying hate groups can get their message across using deceptive monikers, like a site that names itself after the Rev. Martin Luther King but is maintained by Stormfront.
The Wiesenthal Center last month got Yahoo! to remove several racist sites from its search engine because they violated the search engine's rules about appropriate content.
Currently, Wiesenthal staffers are working with Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com to block them from selling literature written by the founder of the American Nazi Party.
Cooper calls not for government intervention but for self-regulation among Internet service providers.
"They'll find ways back online," he says.
Stormfront's Black agrees that his community will remain online despite harassment. He says his site draws 20-30 daily chatters, who log in anywhere from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. and "have withdrawal" when his servers go down, Black says.
Most chatters start at Stormfront's discussion board and then hang around the chat server through the evening, he said.
The site provides an online community for people who feel isolated due to their belief in white supremacy, says Black, who got his first computer training while in federal prison on a conviction involving an effort to overthrow the government in Dominica.
Like World Church of Creation leader Matthew Hale, Black dedicates most of his hours to maintaining his online presence, although he has help from 23 moderators who try to make sure Stormfront chatters avoid talk of illegal activities.
Hackers have brought the site down for more than a few hours up to a half dozen times in the past four years, Black says. Usually, they spam the site with e-mail or flood it with "pings" -- small data packets that in large numbers choke Web servers.
Typical of most leaders and organizations affiliated with high-profile criminals, both Black and Hale distance themselves from the violence committed by visitors to their sites. Without being prompted, Black offered his denial.
"No, we don't think we're responsible for the LA shooting," Black said.
Jewish group complains over sale of hate books online
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