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Wednesday, 16 February, 2000, 18:48 GMT
Cyber-racists 'safe in US'

Racist websites based in the United States have proliferated Racist websites based in the United States have proliferated

By Claire Doole in Geneva

The United States is a safe haven for racists intent on spreading their word on the world wide web.

That is the grim conclusion of a report about to be unveiled at a UN conference against racism held in Geneva this week.

'Offshore' racism

According to international expert David Rosenthal, the US is the racists' equivalent of an offshore tax or gambling centre.

The country's much championed first amendment protecting the right of freedom of speech in effect means racist and hate speech can be freely published on the internet.

With little fear of prosecution, racist groups have flocked to the US to set up online. Five years ago there was only one so-called hate site ,"Stormfront", a white supremacist website.

Over 2000 sites

Numerous hate sites target children Numerous hate sites target children
Today the Simon Wiesenthal Centre counts more than 2000 sites which promote racism, anti-Semitism, hate music, neo-Nazis and bomb-making.

The sites are also used with great effect to organise events, and recruit new members.

Internet chat rooms, popular with the lonely and vulnerable, are seen as ripe recruiting grounds, while some racist groups have set up websites specifically targeted at indoctrinating young children.

The odds are certainly stacked against those wanting to police the web and remove racist sites.

Freedom of speech

The US has shown no sign of wanting to modify its first amendment which guarantees freedom of speech.

Indeed, civil liberties groups oppose any attempt to censor the web. While it is technologically possible to block some sites from the outside, it is doubtful whether access providers could do it on a massive scale.

Blocking is also often not effective as mistakes are made, with "innocent" sites being removed.

It has also provided little deterrent for racist groups who can move easily to other servers or set up their own.

However, David Rosenthal holds out some hope for the future. At the UN conference in Geneva, he will outline a number of as yet untested strategies for combating racism on the web.

Call for liability

Given the US reluctance to join the fight, he maintains the battle should take place outside.

If internet companies publish racist material, he argues, their directors should be liable for criminal charges on trips abroad, where they could even be arrested.

Internet providers who abided by a self-regulation scheme would however be immune from prosecution.

If racism cannot be legally proved, it may, he believes, be easier to get a conviction on grounds of discrimination.

It is the racist groups who appear to be outsmarting the international community as they tighten their grip on their perfect propaganda tool - the world wide web
Another legal route to cracking down on internet racism may be to confiscate the copyright of a racist work put onto a US server from abroad.

Armed with the copyright, that government could then force any US provider to remove the offensive material from the site.

There is no doubt, as Rosenthal argues, the potential for a solution.

However, it requires intense international co-operation and at the moment it is the racist groups who appear to be outsmarting the international community as they tighten their grip on their perfect propaganda tool - the world wide web.
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12 Jan 00 |  Americas expands on the net
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