Friday, May 21, 2010

ISPs, Internet Consumers: Too Tolerant of Hate Speech Sites?

Hate speech web sites from nations where free expression is not a protected right are often published via I.S.P.s in the United States.

A 2005 South Park parody of hate speech inspired its own facebook page, along with verbal and physical attacks on redheaded school children.

Hear the full story here

Hate speech is a fact of life. It inflames, it provokes, it sometimes inspires people to kill. Even a parody of hate speech has the power to injure: In the days after the popular animated TV show South Park featured a pogrom against redheaded children - the despised “Ginger Kids” - schools nationwide reported verbal and physical attacks on students with that coloration.

Sadly, the Internet, for all its sterling qualities, has become the venue of choice for new generations of racists, homophobes, religious fanatics, rabid nationalists and their ilk. There are many thousands of pages devoted to hate speech on the World Wide Web, and some people have begun to wonder what, if anything, can be done about it.

Enter Rick Eaton, a senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. He monitors, as part of his job, activities of extremist groups worldwide, including their Internet presence. He was one of three speakers at the April 30th Law Day conference at Richmond’s Holocaust Museum. The conference theme was Free Speech, Fair Speech, Fear Speech: Civil Discourse in a Volatile World.

Eaton has a professional-grade understanding of the ways and means of hate speech: He’s testified before Congress, he’s been the advisor on videos about prison radicalization and homegrown terrorism and he’s given seminars and training to the FBI and numerous state law enforcement agencies. He says that while hate speech web sites have become big news, they’re not new.

“We’ve been tracking the Internet long before the World Wide Web,” he says. “We’re talking about the BBSs in the 1980s, the early UseNet groups and so on. Since the invention of the World Wide Web in 1994, the first hate site went on line in 1995. Now there are literally thousands and thousands of them, with all the different features of the net there’s no way of even tracking numbers.”

It gets worse: America, with its bedrock guarantees of freedom of expression, attracts hate speech from around the world. Eaton says nations lacking protections for free speech effectively export the worst of their hate blogs to our Internet Service Providers.

Considering the levels of vituperation, not to mention the plain-and-fancy lying that goes on at some of these sites, it seems counter-intuitive not to do something. But Eton says suing those who create and maintain hate speech sites would be an unconstitutional waste of time. His favored strategy is to talk to the people who make it all possible.

“The Wiesenthal Center doesn’t have a litigation department,” he explained. “When this subject first came up, our position was that people who get on the Internet need a provider. Providers, as private organizations, can determine what they want on their system. We went to them and said, ‘How about a voluntary code of ethics? How about not putting this stuff on your servers?’

“Most responded, ‘We’re common carriers. We’re like the phone company; we don’t know what goes on.’ Our response was, ‘No you’re not like a common carrier. You’re providing advertising, you’re selling space to someone.’ That’s still our position. With the way things have evolved over the last few years, I think there’s an opportunity now to possibly get more providers to start signing on to this type of thing.”

The Center believes freedom of expression does not presuppose anyone’s freedom to force someone else to broadcast their opinions. Eaton says he’s had experience with this very issue in years gone by.

“I ran bookstores in the ‘70s,” he recalls. “People would come in and want The Anarchists’ Cookbook. Nobody said they can’t publish it, I just said ‘I don’t have it.’ They’d say, ‘Can you get it?’ and I’d say, ‘No I can’t.’ A lot of stores won’t carry them. There’s always going to be that one odd store, that one odd server that will happily welcome the haters, but if we can marginalize it, we’ll be making progress.”

Even in America, freedom of expression is not absolute. You can’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater and you can’t publicly advocate the overthrow of the legally-elected government through force of arms. Threats and “fighting words” are not Constitutionally protected free speech, and in the current environment of state and stateless terrorism, some hate speech rights may yet be challenged in the Supreme Court.

“There’s a couple of very famous dissents to decisions,” notes Eaton, “which said ‘the Constitution is not a suicide pact.’”

In the final analysis we, the IT consumers, may have to hold responsible some of our favorite I.S.P.s for some of the worst abuses of our 1st Amendment freedoms.

/Mark Dorroh

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