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Thursday, 30 August, 2001, 12:54 GMT 13:54 UK
Battling online hate
Website of white supremacists Stormfront
There are thousands of racist websites
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

One of the issues on the agenda at the World Conference on Racism in South Africa is the role of the media - including the internet - in addressing racism.

For years, anti-racism activists have worked to raise awareness as hate groups have embraced the web and used it to spread their message.

But anti-racism activists and the organisers of the UN conference of Durban understand that just as the internet has allowed hate groups to spread their message, it has also proven a powerful tool to communicate the message of tolerance.

The issue highlights one of the great debates: How does a democratic society respond to racist or other offensive speech without trampling the right of free expression?

Online since 1995

Concern about hate speech on the internet began in the United States shortly after the launch of the first American white supremacist website, Stormfront in March 1995.


Combating online extremism presents enormous technological and legal difficulties

Anti-Defamation League

The site was created by Don Black, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan and a computer consultant.

Mr Black says that the internet has proven to be an invaluable tool for recruiting people to his white nationalist cause.

Since Stormfront was established, hundreds, and by some estimates, thousands of racist websites have been launched.

And anti-racism campaigners say that websites, e-mail and online discussion groups have become powerful recruiting, fundraising and indoctrination tools for racist and hate groups.

Pressuring ISPs

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre identified some 3,000 "problematic" websites in its most recent Digital Hate report.

The centre defines problematic as those sites that promote racial violence, anti-Semitism, homophobia, hate music and terrorism.

It has pressured internet service providers to pull the plug on some sites including Stormfront.

But the centre's high-profile battle with hate websites has sometimes been criticised by civil liberties groups.

In 1996, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the centre was right in trying to bring to light the activities of hate groups online.

The Ku Klux Klan
Mr Black was a Ku Klux Klan member
But ACLU criticised the centre for its call for ISPs to close them down.

The ACLU said: "It is particularly troublesome that an organisation like the Wiesenthal Center that is dedicated to promoting tolerance would seek to erode the liberty most necessary for a free and tolerant society - free speech."

Free expression and racism

It highlights the debate that anti-racism groups face in battling hateful and racist speech both offline and online.

In a report on how racist groups use the web, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said: "Combating online extremism presents enormous technological and legal difficulties."

Even if it were technically possible to completely block access to racist websites, the international nature of the medium makes regulation almost impossible, the ADL said, and such regulation would run foul of free speech guarantees in countries such as the United States.

Similarly, conference organisers in Durban are set to address the issue of how to balance free expression with the use of new technologies, including the internet, promoting racist beliefs and attitudes.

But many groups including the ADL have highlighted ways in which they believe the balance can be struck.

The ADL suggests that concerned internet users install filtering software and alert authorities to threatening or violent messages online.

But more than rejecting racist speech online, the ADL also suggests that internet users fight fire with fire.

"As a powerful technological tool that permits instantaneous communication between disparate populations across the globe, the internet can promote cultural tolerance in a larger sense," the group says.

"The internet has the potential to reinforce respect for all people's voices, to truly become what some have already called it 'the great equalizer'."

See also:

16 Feb 00 | Americas
Cyber-racists 'safe in US'
12 Jan 00 | Americas
Hate.com expands on the net
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