The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center raised the stakes in the ongoing debate over censorship in cyberspace this week, asking hundreds of Internet access providers to deny service to "individuals and groups who seek to use this technology to mainstream their agenda of hate."
Major Internet access providers quickly rejected the appeal, saying they cannot be in the position of deciding what kind material subscribers can create or receive. The center's action nonetheless brings a new dimension to the Internet censorship debate, which has thus far focused mainly on pornography.
Citing about 75 sites on the Internet's World Wide Web that are published by groups that denigrate Jews, blacks and other minorities, the Wiesenthal center--known for its efforts to track down former Nazi war criminals--is sending letters to Internet providers around the country urging them to adopt a "code of ethics."
"What we're asking for is some social responsibility," said the center's Rabbi Abraham Cooper. "These are for-profit ventures, and we're saying set some standards, be responsive to the community."
Cooper said the center is not asking access providers to remove newsgroups that hate groups might use to express their ideas. It has distributed information to be posted in response to assertions such as those denying that the Holocaust ever occurred.
Instead, the center is focusing on Web sites, which allow users to publish text, pictures, sound and video that can be viewed by millions but typically offer no forum for discussion or response.
As use of the loosely organized Internet skyrockets, the slippery question over how and whether to restrict certain forms of expression on it has become increasingly controversial. Congress is debating a proposal that would make it illegal to send "indecent" material over the Internet, although the legislation would not hold online providers responsible if they were unaware of the material sent over their networks.
Cooper compares access providers--which typically charge a monthly fee and allow consumers and businesses to dial into the Internet--to traditional media outlets such as radio stations and newspapers, which he says have typically declined to provide hate groups with a platform.
But online providers argue that they are more like a phone company than a publisher. "While we find hate messages personally offensive, we will not censor," says Curt Kundred, a spokesman for Netcom Communications in San Jose, one of the largest access providers. "We're not going to decide for our subscribers what they should and shouldn't look at."
"If someone has a problem with content on the Internet, they should take it up with them," said Russ Robinson, a CompuServe spokesman. "Our business is to provide access."
Many computer executives say the best way to deal with unwanted material on the Internet is through consumer use of filtering software that can detect certain content and screen it out, rather than leaving it up to access providers to impose a blanket ban.
Brian Ek, a spokesman for Prodigy, which is part of a consortium developing standards for such software, said he was trying to put the Wiesenthal center in touch with his group and with Surfwatch, another developer of such software.
CompuServe was criticized recently when it suspended access to 200 sexually explicit newsgroups in what it said was a response to a demand by the German government. And America Online apologized to subscribers last year when it temporarily banned the word "breast" from its service in an effort to keep its bulletin boards free from offensive terms.
Indeed, most of the discussion about free speech in cyberspace has revolved around protecting children from pornographic material. The Church of Scientology has also sought to restrict critics from posting certain information about the religion on the network.
The Wiesenthal center's actions expand the issue to the realm of politics. Last year the center warned Prodigy about the increase of bigotry on Prodigy bulletin boards, but its request this week is much broader in scope.
"The first step is protecting children, the next step is preventing people from hearing hate speech. What comes next?" said Lori Fena, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a cyberspace civil liberties group. "If everybody wanted to ban everything someone found objectionable on the Internet, this medium that used to be the most democratic representation of ideas would be severely limited."