Washington, 30 July 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. professor says there has been a marked increase of Internet sites originating in Eastern Europe that are disseminating messages of hate and racial intolerance.
Ian Hancock, a linguistics professor at a university in the southwestern state of Texas and an Internet enthusiast, told RFE/RL that although the Internet has only recently becoming widely popular in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, individuals in many of these countries are already using it to perpetuate and encourage racial hatred.
The Internet is the world's largest network that electronically links computer systems of all kinds to each other via telephone lines. Millions of people around the globe access the Internet every day.
Hancock says he has a personal interest in monitoring hate messages on the Internet as he is also the administrator of a web site devoted to issues of the Romani people. The Romani, who today live primarily in Europe and are better known to many as gypsies, have for hundreds of years been the target of discrimination and intolerance.
Hancock says he has seen many East European sites on the Internet that disparage minorities and promote racial intolerance. Hancock says that although these sites are rather primitive and not as well-organized as those of Western organizations that promote similar ideas, the message is still the same -- one of hate.
Hancock says: "Racism in Eastern Europe is actually taking a lot of its cues from North American racism. We're seeing that a lot of the rhetoric which is directed at [the Romani] is just a copy of anti-Black racism in the United States. It has the same wording. It has an increased use of Black and White, with Europeans referring to [the Romani] as Black people. [We've seen] signs up that say, "Go back to India," which is like [saying to Americans of African descent], "Go back to Africa."
Hancock also says that the East European sites rely a lot on what are called "chat rooms," special locations on the Internet where people can participate in interactive discussions.
Hancock says: "What we are getting from Eastern Europe are these chat rooms where people discuss back and forth in quite racist terms that Romanis don't have a place, that they should be destroyed, that Hitler didn't do a good enough job."
Hancock says much of this current intolerance can be traced to a long history of racism, anti-Semitism and ethnic tensions in Eastern Europe and Russia.
Since establishing his Romani site and posting his phone number on the Internet site, Hancock says he has received numerous calls disparaging gypsies.
But gypsies are not the only victims of hate on the Internet. Hundreds of sites spouting the message of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia can be easily located.
Jewish groups like the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Simon Wiesenthal Center study bias crimes. Bias crimes are defined as crimes committed against individuals or groups because of their affiliation with a certain race or religion.
Both groups also study hate groups on the Internet.
David Hoffman, a research analyst with the Anti-Defamation League told RFE/RL that the dissemination of religious and racial intolerance on the Internet is so serious a matter that his organization has published a 60-page booklet entitled "The Web of Hate -- Extremists Exploit the Internet."
Hoffman says that the book identifies "a couple of hundred" web sites with hateful content including individuals who deny that the Holocaust ever took place, anti-government militia groups, racists and anti-Semites.
"Anti-Semitism hasn't changed in nature since it has been given a new tool," Hoffman says. "It just has a potential for wider exposure. The Internet has made the information longer lasting. It's available now at anytime and anywhere."
Many anti-Semitic Web sites have links to other hate groups as well as options to read the content in many languages in order to reach a broader audience.
For example, Ernst Zundel, a Canadian who denies the Nazi Holocaust ever happened, has ensured that his message can be read in French, Portugese, Russian and Swedish.
In an RFE/RL interview, Zundel said that 250,000 visitors have visited his web site since he started it in 1995.
Zundel says: "I admire Adolf Hitler. He gave the Germans a sense of self worth. He single-handedly with his government removed the stigma of the German's being responsible for the first World War. He gave the Germans their honor back, their international prestige and recognition. He gave peace to the Germans and he gave employment to millions of unemployed. He was to Germany a godsend."
Some free speech advocates believe that the antidote to hate groups are organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center -- a non-governmental organization that combats hate, intolerance and discrimination; Nizkor -- a Canadian-based organization which has an Internet site dedicated to the remembrance of the victims of the Nazi Holocaust and to the refutation of those who say it never happened; and the U.S.-based Simon Wiesethal Center which has a web site documenting the history of the Holocaust.
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center is also the director of Klan Watch, a non-governmental task force that monitors extremist activity throughout the United States.
Potok told RFE/RL that many of these groups posting messages on the Internet are "serious and dangerous."
The Klan Watch monitors approximately 400 hate sites on the Web.
Potok says especially active on the Internet are white supremist groups -- people who promote the supremacy of the Caucasian race above all others. Potok says the Internet permits these groups to more easily communicate and recruit.
Potok says: "Along comes the web, which allows an individual to reach an audience of several thousand or more. What we see a great deal of is young kids contacting serious white supremisists."
Potok adds that although he is disturbed by the angry messages he finds on the Internet, he is strongly opposed to government censorship.
Potok's views are shared by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a recent landmark decision, the Court ruled that the government could not pass laws that might infringe on a person's right to freedom of expression -- a right guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution to every American citizen.
Jonah Seiger, communications director at the Center for Democracy and Technology -- a Washington based civil liberties group working for freedom of speech, security and privacy on the Internet -- told RFE/RL he applauds the Court's ruling.
"It's tremendously important to the development of the medium," says Seiger. "It says that users, not the government are the best judges of what materials are appropriate."
Seiger says the Supreme Court ruling sends a signal to the world that establishing content-based regulations on the Internet is not the right approach. Besides, Seiger says, web sites with hateful content are a small percentage of the total.
"The antidote for stuff that you don't like is more speech," Seiger says. "The fact that it's out there on the Net is good because it makes it easier to see what these people are saying and respond to it directly as opposed to it being under the table."