NEW YORK (Oct. 23)
The Anti-Defamation League has accused Prodigy, the online computer services giant, of allowing subscribers to post virulently anti-Semitic messages on its electronic bulletin boards while at the same time refusing to allow other subscribers to post responses.
But Prodigy attests that ADL is basing its claims on “small snippets of a legitimate political debate taken out of context.”
“Because they were taken out of context, their import was grossly exaggerated,” said Steven Hein, communications program manager at Prodigy, which is owned jointly by IBM and Sears, Roebuck and Co.
“We absolutely reject any implication that Prodigy supports or condones anti-Semitism,” he added.
Examples of what Jeffrey Sinensky, director of the civil rights division of ADL, called “real gutter-level anti-Semitism” include the following messages:
“Most of the exterminationist survivors’ tales have long been demolished as fantasy and exaggeration.”
“The Holocaust itself is really an edifice, a monument so to speak, to the naive gullibility of the world in which even the most outrageous survivor’s tales and the falsest testimonies are totally believed without the slightest doubt.”
ADL initially believed that one particularly offensive message was publicly posted on a Prodigy bulletin board.
The message called for “a REAL, and this time, worldwide Holocaust,” and said that “it is a fact that wherever Jews exercise influence and power, misery and warfare and economic exploitation of the host people follow.” It also spoke of how “Jewish power is acquired and applied behind the scenes.”
‘BEYOND THE BOUNDS’ OF DECENCY
After making its assertions public, ADL officials learned that particular message had been transmitted privately through the Prodigy system from one subscriber to another, and not posted publicly on a bulletin board.
Hein of Prodigy said the recipient of that message, who ironically was “pro-Israeli and pro-Jewish,” tried to post it to the system’s bulletin board so “there could be public discussion of it.
“He tried to post it 15 times,” Hein said. “And 15 times we rejected it, because we felt it went beyond the bounds of society’s standards of decency.”
But ADL stands behind its contentions and asserts the Holocaust messages substantiate its position that Prodigy’s rules allow bigotry to be disseminated through the bulletin boards.
Moreover, on several instances, several individuals” have had their responses to anti-Semitic messages blocked by Prodigy, Sinensky said.
After an exchange of letters and a 90-minute meeting with ADL officials on Oct. 21, Prodigy officials asked to review copies of the notes that ADL says were disallowed by the bulletin board overseers.
Sinensky is in the process of obtaining permission from the writers of those notes to show Prodigy the material.
Prodigy’s 1.1 million users send 100,000 messages each week to be posted on its bulletin boards, which are devoted to topics ranging from news headlines to politics to the arts.
While individual notes are not edited or altered, they are scanned “for language” by a “handful” of Prodigy employees and are then “randomly sampled” for a closer look, according to Henry Heilbrunn, a Prodigy senior vice president.
If they do not meet Prodigy standards, they are returned to the sender unposted.
NO ‘GROSSLY REPUGNANT’ LANGUAGE
In a letter to Sinensky, Prodigy’s president and chief executive officer, Theodore Papes Jr., wrote that the exchange of ideas that takes place through the bulletin boards is “limited only by the standards of communication appropriate to a family service.”
The messages are not posted if, among other things, they breach those “family standards” by involving personal insults, abusive language or insulting behavior, according to Prodigy’s rules.
“We will not post notices containing language so scurrilous that it is grossly repugnant to society’s standards of decency,” said Hein.
Another example of one subscriber note which was disallowed by Prodigy referred to a popular rap musician and read, “Vanilla Ice is a weenie,” according to Heilbrunn, the Prodigy senior vice president.
To refuse to post a note like that while allowing Holocaust revisionism, says ADL’s Sinensky, is “bizarre. To say that personal insult is outside of the guidelines” and to have rules that allow someone to advocate genocide “is preposterous.”
Barring anti-Semitism from the Prodigy forum is “well within the editorial policy they’ve established,” he asserted.
“The point is that they’re still saying that you can’t attack an individual, but they’re allowing attacks on a group of people,” said Richard Klein, and ADL spokesman.
Players in the new interactive electronics media industry have had varying degrees of success navigating the debate over the limits on freedom of expression.
Prodigy has come under fire before, from the press, subscribers and civil libertarians, for being “overly restrictive” in deciding what can appear on its bulletin boards, according to Heilbrunn.
ACCUSED OF CENSORSHIP
“As a result, we have evolved our policies to be less limiting. We have been accused of censorship and have moved toward more free expression, not less free expression,” he said.
“The free and open nature of our bulletin board system means that we will post notes on controversial subjects, to which some people may object at times. That is the essence of the lively and vital exchange of views which have come to characterize interactive electronic media,” said Hein.
But according to the ADL, the argument is not one about the First Amendment.
Prodigy is “not a government agency, and they are in the business of editorial review,” Sinensky said.
“They decided to engage in it (making editorial judgments) and, having done that, they have an obligation to implement it consistently. They have not done that,” he asserted.