Maclean's Magazine
Monday, January 11, 1999

Patrolling for Hate on the Net

An upsurge in racist Web sites has school boards scrambling to cope

by Robert Sheppard

Abbee Corb-Cinotti spends most of her days browsing for hate on the Internet and, unhappily for her, she almost always finds it. A former college instructor, now an Internet specialist with the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Toronto, Corb-Cinotti is one of a small handful of cyber-sleuths documenting the rise of hate sites on the World Wide Web. They come in all sizes. When TV's Ally McBeal felt her biological time clock go off last season, she was visited by electronically animated images of a dancing baby, a fixture of the Internet--and a growing fad with mainstream advertisers. The dancing baby can also be found now anchoring a white-power Web site out of New York City, gyrating to skinhead lyrics.

With only a little searching it is not hard to find sites that are relentlessly anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-Catholic, anti-homosexual, or gratuitously violent. Even Sesame Street's Bert and Barney the purple dinosaur have a dark side in the hands of some Web site operators. Says Corb-Cinotti: "With all the graphics and the music and the games you can't help but feel these sites are geared to young people."

According to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, an international rights group, hate sites on the Web have grown to more than 800 from about 50 three years ago, as many as half aimed at young browsers. A Canadian Human Rights Commission tribunal is in the midst of clarifying its authority over racist messages on the Internet with a test case involving a California Web site that once emanated from Vancouver. And with the Internet on the computer stations of almost every school in the country, school boards are trying to come to grips with the phenomenon of what they call inappropriate browsing.

In the next few weeks, the Calgary Board of Education will be introducing into its 220 schools a Web-blocker called Bess, the most efficient software it has been able to find to weed out hate or pornographic sites from student searchers. Marika Bourque, superintendent of learning and information technologies at the board, says there have been some serious incidents in the past involving hate sites and students sending passages from them or e-mail threats to fellow students. The filtering software is sophisticated enough to trace inappropriate browsing back to the individual.

Commercial software restrictors with names like Net Nanny and CYBERsitter are available in stores and come as part of the package with big Internet providers like America Online. But software designed to weed out sites by the use of specific catchwords can be crude instruments--they can block the wrong information and let some nasty things through, critics say. What's more, crafty Web site operators can get around the restrictions by changing the catchwords that are used as lures.

Music is one of the big draws on the Internet. Teenagers quickly learn the MP3 designation that signifies tunes that can be downloaded on the family computer. But anyone typing "MP3" or even "lyrics" or "alternative music" into a search engine should be prepared to sort through a handful of white-power sites that bray racist lyrics and act as fronts to other propaganda. It can be the same for innocent homework inquiries about religion, the Holocaust or even games. The Web hosts white-power versions of such popular teenage games as Doom and Wolfenstein. Click on the "more like this" button and these sites offer other glitzy kids games or crossword puzzles with racist content.

In Calgary's case, trustees are still wrestling with what exactly should be blocked. Other boards, such as the Coquitlam school district in southwestern British Columbia, have rejected blocking software altogether in favour of a code-of-conduct form that is sent home for both parents and students to sign. Net nannies "give you the illusion of security", says Patricia Gartland, Coquitlam's district principal for community services. "We take the approach you have to learn to use the Internet wisely." Students who visit banned sites or send harassing e-mail are treated like those who break other school rules, depending on the severity of the offence.

The dilemma facing school boards mirrors that of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which will hear arguments in February as to whether the Internet should be regulated like radio and TV, or left to market pressures and software filters to weed out the bad apples. Canada is a relatively clean country as far as domestic hate sites go. And while some well-known racists have bragged about their glitzy Internet ads, police hate-crimes specialists have not detected any uptick in youth recruitment. Still, the consensus is that the lures are out there, that it is embarrassingly easy to stumble upon some pretty vile sites--and to be targeted by them electronically in return--and that, for young surfers in particular, the Web can have a dangerous undertow.

Copyright © 1999 by Maclean Hunter Publishing Limited. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.