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Who Can Define ‘jew?’ Internet Flap Shows Challenge of the Digital Age

April 28, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

In 1999, at the height of the Internet boom, the Anti-Defamation League warned that scores of neo-Nazis and white supremacists were going online.

In a report titled, “Poisoning the Web: Hatred Online,” the ADL quoted Don Black, an ex-convict and former KKK organizer, who is credited with building the first Internet hate site. By 1997, the site had grown into what the report called a “supermarket” of racist invective on the Web by linking to many other like-minded efforts.

Among those Black linked to was a Missourian named Frank Weltner, a.k.a. “Von Goldstein Mohammed,” who set up a small site called “Jew Watch” that alleged a host of Jewish conspiracies.

Last month “Jew Watch” made the big time, suddenly placing at the top of searches for the word “Jew” on the search engine giant Google.

That sparked a media blitz, as well as an online furor among those who wanted to quash the site. The digital storm seemed fueled not only by Jew Watch’s improbable ranking, but by the possibility of an initial public stock offering for Google, which many hope will revive the Internet economy.

As of midweek, Jew Watch no longer turned up in response to the “Jew” query, but it did turn up in searches for its title, along with a Google disclaimer about “offensive search results.” Google said that it wouldn’t remove the Jew- hating site from its listings, but it did promise to reconsider how the search engine categorizes and labels search results.

“We do our best to extrapolate what the Web determines is the best result for a particular query, and the Web represents the widest range of opinions imaginable,” Google spokesman David Krane said.

Call it the rise and fall of Jew Watch.

The strange journey began with a report in j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, followed by stories in the New York Times, New York Post, Jerusalem Post, Reuters and such top computer news sites as Cnet.

A New York real estate investor, Steven Weinstock, launched a “” petition hoping to convince Google to remove the offending site.

Though Weinstock told JTA he opposes censorship, he said he appealed to Google’s sense of corporate responsibility in urging the company to suppress Jew Watch. He urged some 40 friends to e-mail Google through his protest site.

By this week, he’d received 118,316 replies, he said, and some 12,000 e-mails.

“I do believe in the First Amendment, but corporations should have some responsibilities,” he said.

Google replied that it wouldn’t intervene or tinker with its search results.

“Petitions don’t impact Google’s ranking technology,” Krane told JTA.

Google determines its results by a kind of digital democracy. When a user begins a search by entering key words or phrases, computer algorithms search the Web for appearances of those words and return each page according to popularity, or what Google calls relevancy.

That was until Daniel Sieradski, editor of “Jewschool,” a Web log of “Jewish news from the fringe,” arrived.

Sieradski launched a “Google Bomb,” a campaign in which many sites link to a single site with the aim of moving it up Google’s rankings.

The Jewschool-led offensive pointed to the online encyclopedia “Wikipedia.” Within weeks, Wikipedia’s definition of the word “Jew” became the first result for that search term.

In the meantime, Jew Watch’s Web hosting service apparently shut the site down for nearly a week. By the time a well-known neo-Nazi site allowed Jew Watch to use its Web service, the absence had pushed its rankings down on Google, several people said.

Sieradski is satisfied with the outcome — “the Jewish people have a right to defend ourselves before our detractors define us for us,” he said — but he doesn’t plan to make the fight against Jew Watch his “life’s mission.”

“There are tons and tons of sites out there and we can’t police them all,” he told JTA.

Sieradski said he’d leave that job to those like “Internet Haganah,” a site that fights anti-Israel Islamic sites on the Internet. Meanwhile, several neo-Nazi sites have begun a “counter-Google Bomb” against Jewschool, Sieradski noted.

As a result, Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, a Stanford graduate and Russian Jew, sent the ADL a letter pledging to re-examine how it classifies Web sites.

Google will not censor any site save for those that remain illegal, such as child pornography sites, Krane said, but it would consider returning to a modified version of its old practice of categorizing each Web page.

Under that system, Jew Watch was tagged “hate/hate sites/anti-Semitic.”

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