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Europe: Analysis From Washington -- Hatred On The Web

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 5 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Neo-Nazis and other extremist groups are increasingly turning to the Internet to spread their messages, a tactic that limits the ability of national governments to restrict the speech of those who seek to incite ethnic hatred in many countries.

The German government on Tuesday released its annual report about extremist threats in that country. The report said that the number of neo-Nazis there had dropped over the past year and that the authorities had had some success in limiting their recruitment efforts at skinhead concerts.

But the report noted that the neo-Nazis and other anti-foreigner groups are increasingly turning to the Internet, a channel that Berlin lacks the ability to control in the same way that it can regulate other activities on its territory.

According to the report, the number of neo-Nazi web sites has grown from 200 two years ago to more than 330 now. Many feature materials which violate German laws against the incitement of racial hatred. But because these sites are posted on Internet providers based outside Germany, the German authorities cannot act against them directly.

Most of these sites are now carried by Internet service providers in the United States and Canada, the report noted. It added that German officials have now turned to U.S. organizations like the Anti-Defamation League to try to force U.S.-based providers to block such sites.

If the German authorities are able to get U.S. agreement to block such sites -- an open question at this time given U.S. protections of freedom of speech -- the extremist groups will likely move their sites to Internet service providers elsewhere and continue to spread their hateful ideas.

That prospect raises three fundamental issues for the international community, issues that officials and analysts in many countries are now grappling with.

First, will there ever be a sufficient consensus internationally to block the sites of such groups? On the one hand, many governments, especially those in Europe and North America oppose restricting speech at all, even if it is hateful, and thus will resist efforts to impose what they view as "censorship" on the Internet.

On the other hand, some other governments and even more private organizations actually support the dissemination of extremist ideas either because they agree with them, because they believe that they are damaging to their political opponents, or simply because they are interested in making a profit.

Second, is the technology going to be there to block the appearance and maintenance of such sites if national governments do reach agreement on what to do?

Technology is advancing so quickly that many people have come to expect it in the very near future to be able to block extremist sites without harming the broader communications opportunities that the Internet makes possible.

But the history of web development thus far suggests that, even in the future, those who want to set up and maintain such sites are likely to be able to find ways around any efforts to restrict them -- unless governments and Internet service providers are prepared to sacrifice other values as well.

Third, can the international community rely on the Western liberal position that the proper response to evil speech is more good speech?

Because the speech on some of these sites is so hateful and because such speech often provokes illegal and immoral actions against individuals and groups, ever more governments and people are beginning to ask whether the Western view about free speech can and should be maintained.

This is not the first time such questions have been raised. Two decades ago, the Soviet government and many third world regimes began talking about the need to create an international information order that would allow them to maintain control over the media their populations had access to.

Western governments generally opposed the proposals of this group, seeing them as undermining the free flow of information on which free societies are based. But now faced with the power of the Internet and its exploitation by extremist groups, even some of these Western governments are beginning to have second thoughts.

And their reconsideration of their earlier opposition to a new international information order threatens to reopen a debate many had thought closed by the end of the Cold War.

And that debate by itself may come to have profound consequences far beyond the hate sites on the Internet that have triggered it and even undermine the very possibilities for democracy and freedom in many countries still struggling to achieve these goals.