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World: Analysis From Washington -- Spreading Hatred On The Web

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 22 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An American human rights group reported this week that the number of sites on the World Wide Web promoting hatred has more than doubled in the past year.

That development presents new challenges to all those who want to prevent the growth of hate groups without violating the basic human rights of all Internet users.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that the number of websites promoting the tactics, language and symbols of hatred had increased from 1,400 in 1999 to 3,000 this year.

He added that most of the increase during the past year had taken place in the United States rather than in Europe, where governments have adopted much tougher laws against hate speech in general. But because people around the world can access sites wherever they are based, Cooper said, the United States risks becoming "the offshore digital hate capital of the world."

He said that his group had examined approximately 30,000 sites for content that "overtly denigrates" members of any group. He added that a committee of experts had reviewed the decision of each examiner to ensure that no site is incorrectly classified. The 3,000 sites that the Wiesenthal Center has concluded do promote hatred are to be listed on the Center's own website at

Responses to this rise in the number of hate sites have divided Europe and the United States. A year ago, the German government convinced a U.S.-based Internet bookseller to stop selling copies of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" to Germans. And on Monday, a French court ordered an American internet provider to block French websurfers from taking part in an Internet auction of Nazi-era memorabilia.

In taking these steps, European officials have argued that governments have a compelling public interest in blocking the spread of such messages of hatred sufficient to override the free speech rights of their citizens which these same governments elsewhere seek to protect.

The position taken by American officials and human rights activists generally has been very different. While they find these sites just as offensive as the Europeans do, they tend to be far more suspicious of any moves to restrict access to them.

They point out that any mechanism that can restrict access to these sites might be used by others to restrict access to other, non-offensive sites and thus restrict the free flow of information which the Internet promotes. And they point to the efforts of governments like China and Myanmar to do just that.

These American officials and human rights activists argue that the best way to counter bad speech is not suppression but rather with more good speech. Efforts to suppress such sites, they suggest, frequently fail, not only because of the nature of the Web which allows people everywhere to access sites based anywhere else but also because these efforts have the unintended consequence of calling attention to such sites.

Moreover, advocates of this position say, the total number of sites on the Web is growing so fast that there is a good chance that good speech on many of them will effectively drown out the bad speech on the few. They even note that organizations like the Wiesenthal Center are able to use the Internet to counter the message of hate groups.

There are no signs at the present time that either the Europeans or the Americans are going to change their positions. Both are obviously concerned about preventing the spread of hatred and protecting free speech rights. But each seems convinced that its strategy is the best one.

If this debate remains unresolved, it has had one positive effect: both sides appear to appreciate that the Internet is not unqualifiedly a positive thing, that it can promote evil as well as good, and that those who want to prevent its use by the purveyors of hatred face a challenge that no one has yet figured out just how to meet.