Mainstream Sites Serve as Portals to Hate

New York Times/November 30, 2000
By Lisa Guernsey

Earlier this month, in a cramped airport lounge in San Jose, Calif., two seemingly unrelated parties sat down to talk about hate. On one side of a conference table sat researchers from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organization in Los Angeles dedicated to the marginalization of groups like the Ku Klux Klan. On the other sat representatives of Yahoo, arguably the most popular site on the Web and, at that moment, home to dozens of online clubs with names like White Knights of the K.K.K.

The gathering, which was convened at the airport for the convenience of both groups, was intended to be a congenial, informational meeting. But according to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an associate dean at the Wiesenthal Center and one of the participants, it was also intended to serve as a wake-up call for Yahoo.

Rabbi Cooper described, for example, a point at which one of his associates opened a laptop and displayed a screen shot captured from one of those online clubs. A noose appeared with the words "Hang em." "Some of the stuff we showed them was as explicit as you can get," Rabbi Cooper said.

The exchange was one of many uncomfortable moments experienced by Yahoo and other popular Internet companies over the past year regarding neo- Nazi or Klan material on their sites. According to the Wiesenthal Center, the Internet now harbors more than 2,000 groups promoting anti-Semitism or white supremacy, at least twice as many as the center found in the spring of 1999.

To stem the proliferation of these sites, organizations dedicated to eradicating such hatred have started to exert pressure on online services and shopping sites that deliver, however inadvertently, bigoted and racist views to a worldwide audience.

Auction sites like eBay, as well as those run by Yahoo, have been the subjects of protests for allowing the sale of items like Nazi flags and Klan hoods. and have come under fire for selling "Mein Kampf," Hitler's autobiography. Even some sites like have been asked to reevaluate the way their search engines retrieve results;, which gives ratings to sites based on data like loading speed and rankings from previous visitors, decided to rename its system "usability ratings" instead of "quality ratings" after realizing that it was posting what looked like positive reviews of racist Web sites.

In the meantime, online services are facing the wrath of organizations and governments outside the United States. While the First Amendment allows Americans and American companies to distribute even the most venomous speech, countries like Germany, Austria, France and Canada prohibit the sale or promotion of hate-related material.

Last week, for example, a judge in France ruled that Yahoo was violating French law by delivering Nazi material to people in France via the company's online auctions, even though the service is based in the United States. Yahoo was acting illegally, the judge said, even though the company has created a separate French site that, unlike the broader Yahoo service, follows French law. The company was ordered to use filtering technology to block hate-promoting material from appearing on computers in France or face fines equivalent to $13,000 a day.

Yahoo, which argued that filters would block even legal material, is considering an appeal. Instead of agreeing to scrub their services of disturbing material, many Web services are trying to sustain a precarious balance: they say they want to avoid becoming a safe haven for hate, yet they do not want to exert too much control over what appears on their Web sites. They see themselves as providing a neutral arena for users to publish or sell what they want, and they shrink at the idea of having to make judgments about what appears there.

Greg Wrenn, a lawyer for Yahoo, said that the issue raised this question: "Do Americans really want Internet service providers and portals deciding what they can and cannot post, if it is otherwise legal?"

In fact, many of the services in question, including Yahoo, clearly state in their policies that hate-fostering speech is prohibited, especially if it incites violence. But at the same time they refuse to monitor or actively seek out violators.

During the airport meeting, for example, Yahoo representatives agreed that some online clubs should be banned under Yahoo's own policies. And the company has since removed the club that displayed the noose. But in an interview a week later, Mark Hull, a senior producer for Yahoo communications services, said that he also wanted to be careful not to delete information simply because some vocal organizations found it upsetting.

"The bottom line is that we are trying to promote inclusiveness and a wide range of free expression," Mr. Hull said. It is that same philosophy, Yahoo officials said, that is spurring them to fight the French order and to resist the urgings of American groups to change its policies. So far, the company has even declined to follow the lead of eBay, which decided last spring to prohibit the sale of Nazi or Klan items that are less than 50 years old. EBay added that restriction, which was intended to allow for the collection of historical material, after receiving letters of protests from several organizations, including the Wiesenthal Center and BiasHelp of Long Island, a support service for hate-crime victims.

Yahoo's strategy has gained some allies, too. The Center for Democracy and Technology, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have argued that large Web services should preserve the Internet's open atmosphere even if that means providing a platform for information about groups like the National Association for the Advancement of White People (founded by David Duke, a former Klan leader) and the World Church of the Creator. (The latter group once included Benjamin Smith, who committed suicide while being sought as a suspect in the shootings of Jews, blacks and Asian-Americans in Indiana and Illinois over three days in 1999.)

Alan Davidson, a lawyer for the Center for Democracy and Technology, is most vocal about the effect of international interference. If an order like the one issued in France is allowed to stand, he said, it could set a disastrous precedent for all Internet companies. They might, he argued, be forced to alter their services to avoid breaking any law in any country or locality - a requirement that would not only trigger what he called "a race to the bottom" (in which any questionable material, however mild, would be banned) but would also cripple a company's ability to move quickly in a changing marketplace. Instead, he said, "the focus should be on the end user," so residents of France, for example, would be punished for gaining access to illegal material in their country, not American companies.

Some civil libertarians acknowledge, however, that the answers become fuzzier when the question shifts from what a government should allow to what a private company may do on its own turf. Yahoo could decide to become much more strict on what it allows without fear of breaking United States laws. Companies place restrictions on their customers all the time.

For the past several years, Rabbi Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center has been traveling the country, and sometimes the globe, to make exactly that point. He is a relentless advocate, making telephone calls and writing letters to dozens of Internet companies and scheduling meetings at restaurants, airport lounges and companies' headquarters. In some cases, his efforts have resulted in new policies, but at the very least they have attracted the news media's attention. In August 1999, for example, he was in the news for calling on and to stop selling "Mein Kampf" in Germany, where it is banned. The company soon decided to halt shipments of that book to Germany. And at Rabbi Cooper's urging, has stopped sending automated e-mail messages after the sales of some books. In the past, a person who purchased "Mein Kampf" might have received a message saying, "If you like `Mein Kampf,' you're sure to enjoy a biography of Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell."

"It's good to try to wrap yourself around free speech," Rabbi Cooper said, "but in this case it doesn't wash." Television stations, newspapers and magazines refuse to accept some advertisements in an effort to marginalize viewpoints and products that the vast majority of Americans think are disrespectful or even potentially dangerous. Internet companies, he argued, "should just do what American companies have been doing for half a century: reserve the right not to peddle bigotry."

That view is shared by Jeffrey L. Reynolds, vice president and chief operating officer at BiasHelp. His group wrote a letter to Yahoo late last month independently of the Wiesenthal Center to urge the service to ban the auctioning of hate-related items. In a recent check, more than 1,000 Nazi and Klan items were for sale on the Yahoo site, including Nazi daggers and knives engraved with "K.K.K." or a blood drop, a Klan insignia. "Many of the items being sold," the letter said, "are not `memorabilia' but new items that appear to have been created by current supremacist individuals or organizations." The letter continued: "Young people commit the vast majority of hate crimes in this country; imagine the implications if someone were killed using a Nazi or K.K.K.- engraved knife purchased via your site."

"We are not going to stop from selling stuff," Mr. Reynolds said in a recent interview. "We do believe, however, that if dot-coms are trying to market themselves to a wider audience, that comes with a new set of responsibilities."

Officials at Yahoo said they had heard about the letter but had not responded because they had never received a copy. BiasHelp said it had faxed a copy to Yahoo's main office. But the company did respond in February to concerns from the Anti-Defamation League, which asked Yahoo to remove racist clubs from its service. Yahoo did not take down everything that the league requested be removed, but the company did issue an apology for not addressing the group's concerns more quickly.

Today, the Anti-Defamation League says it has a good working relationship with Yahoo as well as with other online services like America Online. When complaints are raised, league officials said, the companies are quick to respond. In addition, said Abraham Foxman, the group's national director, the league tries to stress the need for education rather than censorship. It offers a "hate filter" to people who want to block certain sites from appearing on their Web browsers and has published a $12.95 book called "Poisoning the Web: Hatred Online."

The Wiesenthal Center, too, is offering educational materials. It is now selling the third edition of Digital Hate, a $20 CD-ROM that is designed to call hate sites - as well as mainstream auction services and portals that carry hate-promoting material - to the public's attention. And HateWatch, an organization in Cambridge, Mass., that grew out of a Harvard Law School program, produces educational videos, offers online chats about the subject and maintains an extensive list of online hate groups on its Web site,

BiasHelp, in addition to educational efforts, has tried yet another approach. In January, it purchased a handful of Internet domains like and Now when people try to go to those Web addresses, they are taken to the BiasHelp Web site, which invites visitors to learn about its programs. Considering that more than 75 percent of the Web site's traffic comes from people typing in those addresses, Mr. Reynolds said, "it was the best money we ever spent."

Web portals and auction sites applaud the educational efforts. But when it comes to promising that they will rid their services of hate-filled material, the companies step back. They will respond to complaints, they say, but they will not monitor what appears on their site. If they did that kind of monitoring, they might get themselves into even more trouble, according to some experts on Internet law. They point to a part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (a section not overturned by the United States Supreme Court when it ruled on the act in 1997), which states that interactive computer services cannot be held liable for material transferred over their services. Some lawyers have interpreted that law to mean that computer services would also be immune from responsibility for crimes committed as a result of information transmitted on their networks.

Earlier this month, in fact, a state judge in California ruled that the law extended to the sale of bootlegged music on eBay. This means, legal experts add, that the more an online service monitors its users, the more it looks like an editor instead of a neutral interactive computer service. And the more it looks like an editor, the more vulnerable it becomes to lawsuits accusing it of acting recklessly when inappropriate material sneaks through.

Mr. Hull, of Yahoo, argued that there was even more at stake than the risk of lawsuits. If Yahoo started banning every club that offended some users, it would kill what many free-speech advocates say has made the Web so interesting and dynamic. Where would it draw the line? What if, for example, some religious groups asked for the removal of online clubs for homosexuals?

"At the end of the day, some things are subjective," he said. The company will evaluate complaints within 24 hours to see if they violate Yahoo's policies, Mr. Hull pledged, but that does not mean that Yahoo will take down every online club that is subject to a complaint. The same discretion is used in complaints about Yahoo auctions. Besides, Mr. Hull argued, sometimes even what looks like a hate-oriented club or auction item can be misleading. He once received a complaint, he said, about a Yahoo club called Skins on Skates. "We found that it was a bunch of teenagers who like skateboards and have short hair," he said. Officials at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Democracy and Technology say they support Yahoo's stance favoring less censorship. But they also say it's a good sign that Internet companies are facing protests. "We've always said that the best antidote to speech is more speech," Mr. Davidson said. "Frankly," he added, sounding almost surprised, "this is exactly how the system is supposed to work."

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