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As Google Lends Itself to Hate Sites, Jewish Community Ponders Response

February 10, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Jewish officials are angered by the use of a Web site to create online hate communities, but they are taking different approaches on how to confront the issue. is one of several social-networking services available on the Internet. Created and run by Google, it offers users the opportunity to join communities where topics of shared interest are discussed.

In addition to groups celebrating the rap artist Eminem, tequila or McDonald’s, for example, some users have developed groups for people who share a distaste for particular races, ethnic groups or sexual orientations.

One such community, called the “Jewish Problem,” asks users: “Why are Jews hated so much? Well here is the place to tell the people why. They own entire industries, the media, and even America itself. They have TOO much ‘behind the scenes’ influence and it needs to stop now.”

The number of people who join the hate communities is relatively small. Whereas the Eminem group has 45,308 members, the Jewish Problem — whose logo is a stick figure throwing a Star of David into a trash can — has 14 members.

Brian Marcus, director of Internet monitoring for the Anti-Defamation League, said the organization plans to contact Google about the Orkut hate communities. But he also said that singling out Google, the Internet’s most popular search engine, when so much hate speech is available elsewhere on the Internet is not necessarily productive.

“Looking at the broad world of hate on the Internet, focusing on just this small section of it somewhat diminishes the impact of so many other large organized Web sites” supporting “hate groups and even terrorist groups that are using the Internet,” Marcus said.

But David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said such instances of hatred must be dealt with one by one.

“What choice do we have?” asked Harris, whose group sent a letter to Google on Monday demanding that the company enforce its own terms of service, which forbid hate speech. “You do it retail, you can’t do it wholesale.”

Lauren Gelman, associate director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, said that according to U.S. law, Google would not be held accountable for the behavior of those who use its services. But both Harris and Marcus, like other Jewish officials interviewed for this story, urged the company to enforce its own rules about the proliferation of hate speech through its site.

For its part, Google says that when users violate its service terms “we take the necessary steps, which can include removing the content.”

“There are instances when Orkut users misuse it, but it is a very, very small number compared to everyone who uses it,” Google spokesman Steve Langdon said. “There’s a certain amount of trust we have to place in the users, or it’s not a scalable service.”

Many of Orkut’s hate sites are written in Portuguese. Indeed, a Brazilian prosecutor reportedly has launched an investigation into some of the most troubling communities.

Orkut users must be invited to join the site by another member.

Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, said the Orkut case highlights the fact that the Internet has rendered old models of responding to hate speech obsolete.

In the past, responses were made “on the assumption that there wasn’t a high distribution” of the hate speech “and that it was easily countered by other speech, by exposure,” he said. “The trouble with this is that neither of those criteria continues to apply. It’s not visible, it’s not subject to exposure and it’s not easy to counter with your own speech. And so that requires some rethinking.”

Last year, after Web users discovered that the anti-Semitic site showed up in the top position when they searched Google for the word “Jew,” an online petition campaign was launched demanding that the company bump the site.

Though Google said it does not tamper with search results, it did post a disclaimer calling the site “disturbing” and explaining how it might have emerged in the top slot, where it remains.

Also in 2004, a French court ordered Yahoo, another Internet search engine, to “dissuade and render impossible” access to Nazi artifacts that had been put up for auction.

But the auction of such memorabilia is legal in the United States and raised the complex issue of whether foreign countries whose laws differ from those in America can sue American-based Internet providers whose content is not limited by borders.

Reversing the decision of a lower court in the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. District Court lacked jurisdiction in the matter, essentially leaving the larger issue unresolved.

For Stanford’s Gelman, the Orkut issue comes down to protecting free speech. Even the expression of offensive sentiments is guaranteed in the Constitution, she said.

Hate speech is “more dispersed in that it comes into your house more easily” than in the past, “but that doesn’t really change the legal principle,” Gelman said. “I’m Jewish and I absolutely think that this is the appropriate way to address this. As a minority you always want to live in a world where minority views are protected.”

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