In its strongest attempt yet to halt the explosion of hate groups online, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has compiled a virtual address book of Web sites that it hopes will force Internet service providers nationwide to ferret out and take action against these groups.
In the last year, the number of Internet Web pages put up by neo-Nazis, white supremacists, entrepreneurs who record and sell racist music online, and schools that provide lessons in bomb-making or other terrorist activities has increased by about 300%, according to the Los Angeles center.
These sites are cataloged in a three-part interactive CD-ROM as part of the center's third attempt to prove to service providers that a growing number of hate groups is using the Internet to recruit young people and distribute propaganda. The center is focusing on the providers because they are paid to host sites on the Internet's World Wide Web and can draft policies to regulate Web pages.
"There needs to be a kind of collective wake-up call", said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center. "Drawing a line on where you don't want your service to be used is as much an American way of doing business as our commitment to 1st Amendment rights."
Publicity the disk may give hate groups is a trade-off the center must make to get the word out about their actions, Cooper said. Internet service providers must "make sure the bigots don't get a free ride" by instituting aggressive guidelines that allow them to bump these groups from their servers, the center says. Failing this, Cooper said, providers should hire "librarians" to assist kids online.
Some Internet service providers argue that they do boot hate groups off their service-- although this usually happens only when another customer complains. Brentwood-based GeoCities has used its content guidelines, which prohibit "blatant expressions of racism and hatred", to force hate groups to leave its online community of 1.2 million "homesteaders".
"Our feeling was that we want to enable communication and self-expression, but not, in a sense, contribute to the people that are going to abuse it", said Dick Hackenberg, GeoCities vice president of marketing.
But policing the thousands of subscribers who use their networks is tough, say the Internet service providers, or ISPs. They add that they don't have the time or resources to do this well. And when an ISP kicks a hate group off its service, it often doesn't solve the problem, because the group can sign on with another provider.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights agency that devotes about 80% of its time to tracking the explosion of hate groups online, says ISPs have a "social responsibility" to educate their subscribers.
"The one thing the Internet doesn't excel in is critical thinking. We have to make sure kids know just because it's on the Net doesn't mean it's true", Cooper said. "We can't dump moral decisions on 12-year-old kids".
Internet service providers counter that a librarian service would be expensive. Search engines like Alta Vista or Lycos, they say, already provide a means for users to find sites that address both sides of an issue.
With most of these groups, "if they put up a Web page, no one goes and looks at it", said Steve Dougherty, director of Internet operations at Pasadena-based Earthlink, an Internet service provider. "It's like putting up a flier on a tree in the forest, because they would have to physically do a search for it and say, "Oh, here's a KKK thing.' "
Even though some ISPs have policies that specifically prohibit hateful or racist activities, the majority of providers refuse to censor their customers' Web sites, arguing that to do so violates the right to free speech.
"That is a very unfortunate path to take to expect ISPs to discriminate against a class of users engaged in speech which is protected in the U.S.-- even if they as businesses find that speech repugnant", said Barbara Dooley, executive director of the Commercial Internet Exchange, a New York-based Internet trade association.
Naturally, hate groups listed on the Wiesenthal center's CD-ROM agree that ISPs should not censor Web site content. They say most providers have a "strong libertarian sentiment" and don't want to censor content.
"I don't think commercial ISPs have any business censoring unfashionable political content", said ex-klansman Don Black. "In fact, if Thomas Jefferson had a Web site today, he would clearly face censorship because of his view that the white and black races could never live under the same government."
When Black created his "White Nationalist" Web page two years ago, he could find only three other sites to list on his links page. Today he has at least 600 hate-based Web sites from which to choose.
Black's "Stormfront" site, which he operates from his West Palm Beach, Fla., home, is considered by the Anti-Defamation League to be the "longest-lived extremist hate site on the Internet."
The site "quickly became a major online source of white supremacist and anti-Semitic propaganda and hyperlinks to other groups", according to the ADL.
But legal experts say Internet service providers that attempt to keep these groups from using their services do not violate a subscriber's 1st Amendment rights.
"The relationship between an ISP and subscribers is purely contractual. They are not a government entity and aren't bound by restrictions of the 1st Amendment", said David Kramer, a San Francisco-based Internet attorney with Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati. "In fact, in most of the agreements between ISPs and their subscribers, there's a clause that allows the ISP to do whatever it chooses."
The skyrocketing number of hate-based Web pages, which parallels the Internet's increasing popularity, has prompted several providers to directly address anti-hate groups' concerns.
America Online, for example, is providing technical support to the ADL, which is developing the first software filter designed specifically to block hate sites. The league announced Wednesday that it is compiling a list of sites for The Learning Co., a Cambridge, Mass.-based software firm that makes a filtering program called Cyber Patrol. The new product will be available in about six weeks for a fee from AOL or on the league's Web site.
"We are very much for free speech", said Mark Edelman, ADL director of marketing and communication. "This particular product is not meant to prevent speech. It's solely designed for parents who have a certain right to protect their own children from hate."
The ADL, which has written two reports on hate groups online, including "The Web of Hate: Extremists Exploit the Internet", released last month, does not advocate forcing hate groups off the Internet.
"Our motto is that you fight bad speech by putting out good speech", Edelman said.
For its part, the Wiesenthal Center plans to distribute 5,000 "Racism, Mayhem & Terrorism: The Emergence of an Online Subculture of Hate" CD-ROMs to law enforcement officials, educators, and the public. It hopes these groups will decide to take action once they watch the disk.
The center has twice tried to call attention to the growing online hate community. In December 1994, it warned Prodigy that its bulletin boards were being used by bigots. And about a year ago, it sent a letter to providers asking them to adopt a "code of ethics."
Cooper said the CD-ROM will raise awareness among minorities targeted by hate groups on Web sites and hopes it will prompt them to join the center's efforts.
"We're getting the message out to the public, parents and young people that they are there", Cooper said. "At the end of the day we'll figure out a way to make sure people can be empowered online. Don't we owe it to members of minority communities to let them know that they are being targeted?"