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Conference aims to fight online racism

Experts gathered in Paris seeking a common approach to combating racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic propaganda on the Internet, seen as a a chief factor in the rise in hate crimes.
/ Source: The Associated Press

European neo-Nazis post online pictures of paint-smeared mosques. Web sites of Islamic radicals call for holy war on the West. Aliases like “Jew Killer” pop up on Internet game sites.

International experts met Wednesday in Paris to tackle the tricky task of fighting anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic propaganda on the Internet — seen as a chief factor in a rise in hate crime.

Purveyors of hate have found a potent tool in the Internet, spreading fear with such grisly images as the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.

The new technology has proven to be a boon for hatreds of old, many experts say.

“Our responsibility is to underline that by its own characteristics — notably, immediacy and anonymity — the Internet has seduced the networks of intolerance,” French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said in opening remarks at the two-day conference.

France, which is spearheading the effort, has faced a surge in anti-Semitic violence in the last two years. Some fault the growth of Internet use among hate groups.

But differing views about the limits of free speech and the ease of public access to the nebulous, anonymous Web largely stymied officials hoping to find common ground in Wednesday’s talks.

A sticking point was whether the United States, which has championed nearly unfettered free speech, would line up with European countries that have banned racist or anti-Semitic speech in public.

The dilemma is all the more acute because the Internet is global, easy to use and tough to regulate — as shown by widespread sharing of music online, an illegal practice that has confounded record companies. Terror groups have also used the Internet to plot attacks.

There are no easy solutions, delegates said. Many urged more youth education, better cooperation between governments and Internet service providers, or new studies on links between Web racism and hate crimes.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 55-country body that promotes security and human rights, organized the conference with the backing of the French government. Six countries in the Middle East and North Africa also sent envoys. The meeting is one of three OSCE conferences on anti-Semitism and racism this year.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Dan Bryant acknowledged the American approach differs from that of other countries.

“We believe that government efforts to regulate bias-motivated speech on the Internet are fundamentally mistaken,” Bryant said. “At the same time, however, the United States has not stood and will not stand idly by, when individuals cross the line from protected speech to criminal conduct.”

He said the United States believes the best way to reduce hate speech is to confront it, by promoting tolerance, understanding and other ideas that enlighten.

Robert Badinter, a former French justice minister, said that of 4,000 “racist sites” counted worldwide in 2002, some 2,500 were based in the United States.

There are signs that online hate is getting worse.

The French foreign minister cited a recent report in Britain that showed the number of “violent and extremist sites” had ballooned by 300 percent in the last four years in 15 OSCE countries surveyed.

France last year banned a Web site responsible for thousands of daily racist messages, one of which claimed responsibility for dousing mosques with paint in the colors of the French flag, the International Network Against Cyber Hate wrote in a report released Wednesday.

Christopher Wolf, chairman of the Internet Task Force of the U.S. Anti-Defamation League, pointed out how one student on a blog site at Brandeis University described playing an Internet video game against a rival who had nicknamed himself “Jew Killer.”

In Egypt, some sites have shown pictures of American soldiers in Iraq to dredge up anti-U.S. feeling; one purportedly showed the June 8 killing of American civilian Robert Jacobs in Saudi Arabia.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group based in Los Angeles, said one strategy is for Internet service providers in the United States to honor anti-racism language in their own contracts.

But even that won’t stamp out Internet hate, he said.

“Will this put the (Ku Klux Klan) out of business? No. They will be able to find some way of getting their messages back online,” he said. “But it will put a crimp in that subculture on the Internet.”