Hate On The Internet
Jan. 1, 2002
This article originally appeared in the Toronto star on May 2, 1995, under the title, Up To Individuals Not State Censors To Police Internet. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
Note that much of this article’s content is outdated, since the world wide web was still in its infancy in 1995. The article was completed after months of “undercover” activity in white supremacist newsgroups. Interestingly, some of the nefarious figures encountered have since risen to prominence in the neo-nazi world, and have just as quickly plummetted from bigoted “grace”.
With public obsession with the Internet –the global computer communications network– at an all-time high, it’s not surprising that Time Magazine recently released a special issue dedicated to its navigation. What is surprising is that the B’Nai Brith, the Jewish anti-defamation league, recently declared that the Internet is being increasingly exploited by hate groups.
A quick scan of the available newsgroups would tend to confirm this observation. A newsgroup is an area of the Internet dedicated to discussions on a designated topic. Subscribers may read postings, submit their own comments or respond to the comments of others. Topics have traditionally ranged from entertainment (“alt.startrek”, for example) and levity (“rec.humor.funny”) to commerce and society (“tor.forsale” and “soc.culture.australian”).
Recently, however, the numbers subscribing to such renegade newsgroups as “alt.revisionism” and “alt.politics.white-power” have increased dramatically. Postings on these groups can be inane ravings about how ZOG (the “Zionist Occupational Government”) have suppressed U.F.O. data –don’t laugh, this one’s not made up– to the more dangerous advertisements for private video and book sales. Banter is often of the locker room variety, or feeble attempts to argue logically from a dubious fact base. But there is also the unspoken underlying potential for real organization.
The establishment of the Internet has been likened to the invention of the printing press. And, in much the same way as that earlier information revolution, the flow and dissemination of opinions can no longer be controlled or edited. Indeed, some hate-mongers have compared their activities with Martin Luther’s campaign of public religious education.
The explosion of disinformation has been fuelled by the arrival of public Internet providers, companies that furnish computer accounts to anyone willing to pay the minimal monthly fee. The bigger ones are America Online and Netcom in the USA, Internex Online and various Freenets in Canada, and the Hong Kong Supernet in South Asia. While these servers have taken the Internet out of the hands of the educational elite –the universities, military and research institutions– they have also made it vulnerable to those with invalid credentials and questionable agendas.
Indeed, the majority of hateful posters seem to originate from these public servers, sometimes choosing derogatory and racist user names like “dummcoon”. Some of the more spirited and libelous comments arise from anonymous servers, such as “anon.penet.fi” in Finland. These posters are nothing more than cowardly, throwing their stones from behind the wall of anonymity.
What is still unknown is the complement and demographics of the “lurkers”, people who read the postings but never respond. One can hope that they are merely the curious or entertained, and not the silent and converted.
This issue has stoked the debate of censorship. Should the Internet, humanity’s greatest reservoir of free uncontrolled information, be subject to official censure? Some providers claim to monitor their users to ensure that certain standards of conduct are maintained. Recently, Netcom revoked the account of an individual who was posting rabid antisemitic propaganda. The story was carried on CBC Prime Time News. But the official reasons for the closure of the account had nothing to do with any objections to the contents of the offending articles, but with the method of the posting: the fellow was cross-posting to too many newsgroups simultaneously, and was thus in reach of his contract with Netcom.
Internet providers are very wary of being seen to censor or moderate their users. The argument against moderation is that the ‘Net is self-regulating; users objecting to a posting feel a moral obligation to rebut and refute it. But there are so many niches in Cyberspace that a group wishing to develop its agenda can do so with relative privacy. Eventually, detractors tire of discrediting every outrageous statement, and the group continues its activities unabated.
In any case, it seems unlikely that, this far into its evolution, some comprehensive and fair form of censorship could be imposed on this juggernaut. It remains to each of us to play an active role in challenging every germ of hate and ignorance that could infect humanity’s greatest forum.
Ray Deonandan is a prolific freelancer and an owner of The Podium. His personal website can be found at www.deonandan.com.