FOCUS ON ISSUES Battling hate on the Internet: Block it or educate against it

NEW YORK, Feb. 12 (JTA) — The war against hate has a new battlefield — the Internet. The Internet is popular among hate groups because they find it easier to “market their products to millions of homes in a market that”s dominated and best used by young people,” according to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. The number of Web sites promoting hate has doubled in the last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The problem is so disturbing that the United Nations took up the issue at a recent conference in Geneva. And President Clinton recently announced plans to create a “family-friendly Internet,” but how to accomplish that goal is up for debate. Virtually no one in the United States is advocating for laws to restrict hate material on the Internet because of free-speech concerns. The answer to combating hate on the Internet, say experts, lies in educating against it or in using technology that blocks access to certain Web sites. The ADL and a business called The Learning Company are currently developing software that would block out hate sites, said Mark Edelman, ADL”s director of marketing and communications. The software should be available in the next month, he said. But while filtering software appears to be a viable solution at first glance, some doubt whether it would be effective. The two main types of filtering software now available either impede access to certain Web sites based on keywords in the site or block sites based on URLs — Web site addresses. The Learning Company, makers of Cyber Patrol filtering software, currently creates a list of possibly offensive sites based on keywords. An employee then looks at each site to see if it meets the company”s criteria. If it does, the site is blocked, said Susan Getgood, The Learning Company”s director of marketing. Among the criteria are “pictures or text advocating prejudice or discrimination” and those “advocating extremely aggressive and combative behaviors, or unlawful political measures,” according to a company list. Some sites, such as those sponsored by the Aryan Nation, are easy to identify. Others, like Holocaust denier sites, are a more “complicated question” because blocking the denier also blocks sites that refute the denier, Getgood said. For example, both the ADL and Wiesenthal Center Web sites could be effectively blocked because of keywords found on hate sites. A new version of the filtering software being developed by the ADL and The Learning Company aims to overcome that problem. Software designed to block URLs have also proven to be less than effective because of mirror sites. A mirror site, which copies information from the first URL, can be created to bypass the filter”s block. The effectiveness of mirror sites has led to frustration in countries, such as Germany, that have strict laws against hate speech on the Internet. In some of those countries, neo-Nazi sites can be removed from domestic Internet providers. However, officials have no control over mirror sites created in other countries and accessed by people in their country. Because Americans are loath to restrict hate speech, mirror sites are usually created in the United States. Indeed, the free-speech issue informs the crux of the debate. The Internet should “get the same protection as any other type of communication,” said Kenneth Stern, a specialist on anti-Semitism and extremism for the American Jewish Committee. The U.S. Supreme Court agrees. Last June, it struck down the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which sought to regulate use of the Internet. The court ruled that by denying minors access to harmful speech, the legislation “suppresses a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to receive” and discuss. Efforts are now under way to restrict access to Web sites along lines similar to the ratings placed on television programs. Under a plan endorsed by several Internet search engines, including Yahoo! and Excite, Internet sites will be required to label the content of their site when applying for a spot in the search engines” list of sites. Clinton has expressed support for such a labeling plan. And IBM recently announced a grant to create a non-profit organization to develop a content labeling system for the Internet. But labeling systems, while helping to guide a computer user, do not block access to hate material. Some maintain that the best solution to countering the content of hate sites is to educate against them. “Treat the computer like your television: Be aware of what your children are watching and try to control access to it,” said Stern. Marc Klein, publisher of the Jewish Community site on America Online, a leading Internet provider, agreed. “Talk about some of the bad things on the Web” with children and “what you don”t want them looking at,” Klein said, adding that it is no different then telling your kids you don”t want them doing drugs. Similar sentiments were echoed during the U.N. conference in Geneva in November, when one participant urged parents to show their kids the various sites to teach them what is on the Internet. Some organizations are even developing anti-racist sites. Bell Atlantic, a regional telephone company, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a U.S. civil rights coalition, are creating a Web site that “is an antidote to cyberhate,” said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference. The site — www.civilrights.org — will provide information on hate crimes across the country, legal- and law-enforcement strategies and material to teach youngsters about tolerance. “This Web site will respond to hate with information and competing ideas without seeking to restrict Internet speech,” Henderson said. That approach is similar to one advanced in a 1992 U.S. Department of Commerce report on telecommunications-based hate speech, which concluded that the best response to hate speech “is more speech to educate the public and promote greater tolerance.” But despite all the efforts to counter hate on the Internet, hate groups continue to use the technology to promote their ideology. The “far right has been using it more effectively than the rest of society,”” Stern said. There are more than 600 hate Web sites, according to the Wiesenthal Center, and with an estimated 50 million computer users, worldwide hate groups have discovered the fastest way to reach the masses. The Internet is being used by anti-Semites “to promote their ideas in the virtual equivalent of Times Square,” said Cooper, referring to an area of New York City seen by millions each day. But not everyone worries about hate groups operating online. With just 11 percent of the American population online, hate groups are “almost talking to themselves,” said the Jewish Community”s Klein, who is also the editor of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. But Klein also voiced concern that groups combating hate may be giving undue publicity to the very sites they want people to ignore. “I cringe because I can see people reading a story” on an anti-hate site about a hate group”s Web site “and then going out to the Web to read these pages,” Klein said. Stern, of the AJCommittee, acknowledged that there is no way to estimate how many people are influenced by the sites, but hate groups wouldn”t be using the Internet if there “wasn”t some value to it.””

NEXT STORY