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As Hate Mail Flies Through Cyberspace, Jewish Groups Seek Answers and Action

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is asking Vice President Al Gore and Prodigy, an on-line computer service to face up to the swelling volume of hate tirades on electronic bulletin boards in cyberspace.

In a letter last week to the president of Prodigy, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, requested that the commercial on-line computer service find a way “to deal with racist subscribers who abuse Prodigy to spread hatred and demean entire groups of people.”

In an immediate response, Prodigy spokesman Brian Ek invited Cooper and researcher Rick Eaton to come to White Plains, N.Y. and meet with Prodigy officials in early January.

At the same time, Cooper petitioned Gore, as the highest-ranking advocate of the budding information superhighway, to convene a meeting of human rights groups, educators, regulatory agencies and technological “to develop strategies to combat the abuse of the superhighway by hate mongers.”

Cooper said that while racist, anti-Semitic and white supremacist messages are found on other major commercial on-line services, he had received the most complaints from Prodigy users.

The commercial services have five million subscribers, including two million on Prodigy, but these figures – and the potential spread of hate messages – are dwarfed by the 20 million computer users linked to the Internet global computer network.

Prodigy was the focus of controversy involving anti-Semitic postings three years ago and at the time worked with the Anti-Defamation League to craft a policy that forbids “blatant expressions of hatred” on its boards.

Prodigy spokesman Ek said that while this policy is still in place, “we have more than 1.7 million notes on the board at any given time, and we can’t read them all.”

ADL confirmed that Prodigy has “been extremely receptive and cooperative” about ADL complaints.

According to Jeffrey Sinensky, director of ADL’s civil rights division, the problem with Prodigy and the other on-line services is getting them to adhere to the standards they have set.

The Wiesenthal Center said it has tracked more than 50 separate hate groups on Internet and the on-line services during the past few months.

While Cooper acknowledged that sensitive free speech issues are involved in any attempt to restrict access and expressions of opinion in the booming medium, he believes that reasonable guidelines can be established.

“We’re dealing with a new field and we have to come to come up with new answers,” he said.

By way of illustration, he said that Alexander Graham Bell never thought the telephone would be used for obscene calls, but given their existence, technological means have been found to defend against such calls.

Right now, Cooper said, the Internet is getting to be like the Wild West, with no sheriff around to discourage evil doers.

Internet is also the latest battlefield for Middle East confrontations, according to a recent Los Angeles Times article by Sheldon Teitelbaum.

Onr forum, called JPOL – for Jewish Politics – is the favorite platform for mostly “ultra right-wing American Jews willing to fight to the last living Israeli” against the current peace process, the article says. On P-NET, or Palestine Net, Palestinians and their supporters regularly lambast Yasser Arafat for selling out to Israel.

For both camps, as well as for Holocaust deniers and skinheads, Internet “is a strategically placed hilltop from which to lob computer equivalents of Katyusha rockets and artillery shells at the enemy,” writes Teitelbaum.

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