Looking for a little Nazi memorabilia--an officer's dagger, perhaps, or an SS parade flag? A Swastika or mint-condition Iron Cross? These, and hundreds of other items, are for sale on EBay, the Internet's largest auctioneer. Is the site simply supplying a marketplace for historic collectibles, or is it, as Rabbi Abraham Cooper charges, "peddling hate"?
Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and engineer of its Cyberwatch project, is well aware that there's a "very significant market" for Nazi paraphernalia and that it's widely available at venues such as swap meets and gun shows.
But, he contends, the equation changes when it's just a mouse click away--that's akin to selling it "in the gift department at Macy's," to the mainstream masses.
Recently, Cooper has gone after not only EBay but Internet giants Barnes & Noble.com and Amazon.com, questioning the latters' practice of selling the English-language edition of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" to online customers in Germany, where the criminal code forbids selling of all but annotated versions with footnotes.
The larger issue, says Cooper, is that of the Internet as a vehicle for promoting anti-Semitism, white supremacy, neo-Nazism and violence.
When the Wiesenthal Center started tracking such matters, in April 1995, at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, it identified one hate Web site. To date, its researchers worldwide have identified 2,000 "problematic" sites, many of them compiled on "Digital Hate 2000," a CD-ROM available through the center.
"The extremists very early gained a foothold" on the Internet, Cooper says. "The Web is being manipulated in a very sophisticated way to spread anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish messages."
A Catalog of Internet Extremists
A sampling from the CD-ROM: the Institute for Historical Review and its message of Holocaust denial, a site labeling the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "an America-hating Communist," a Ku Klux Klan youth site promoting "white pride" and a site for the Knights of Freedom Youth, whose goal is "to adhere as closely as possible to the ideals of the Hitler Youth," including "preservation of our Aryan gene pool." The sites, many of which invoke Christianity or patriotism in their names, include those touting anti-homosexual messages and sites promoting revolution through armed violence.
Cooper says that, in a very short time, "we've seen a migration of the extremist groups from the chat groups," where they busied themselves sending nasty e-mails, to sophisticated Web sites on the World Wide Web. All while Congress and various concerned citizen groups have been debating whether, and how, to regulate Internet content.
When the Wiesenthal Center first started looking at the issue of online book selling last summer, Cooper asked a center researcher in Germany to get out his credit card and do some shopping.
"Both Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com sold him 'Mein Kampf,' sent from the United States," Cooper says.
And, Cooper noted, the buyer received one of those automated follow-up e-mail messages from Amazon.com to the effect, "If you liked 'Mein Kampf,' you're sure to enjoy a biography of Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell."
A perfect example, in Cooper's view, of Internet commerce needing to take a hard look at salesmanship versus social responsibility. (At the urging of Cooper, says spokesman Bill Curry at Seattle-based Amazon.com, "We thought it was probably best to un-automate the automated [follow-up] e-mail process" on certain books.)
To date, here's what else Cooper has accomplished:
* He met in Berlin last month with German Minister of Justice Herta Daubler-Gmelin, who agreed to investigate the practice of American-based companies selling books or artifacts via the Internet to customers in Germany in possible violation of German law. She agreed, Cooper says, that the language in which "Mein Kampf" is written is not the point; the point is that Germany's anti-Nazi statutes specify that only an annotated version, presenting Hitler's writings as history with analysis, rather than propaganda, may be sold there legally.
* Amazon.com will no longer sell "Mein Kampf" to customers ordering it online from Germany. Curry said, "Amazon.de [the German affiliate] has never sold 'Mein Kampf' in Germany because the German-language version is on the banned book list. It was possible, however, to order 'Mein Kampf' in English from Amazon.com and have it shipped to Germany. At Rabbi Cooper's suggestion, we had our lawyers review the legality of this" and decided the "prudent thing to do was not to do it."
* In response to Cooper, Barnes & Noble's German online bookselling partner, Bertelsmann, also asked the bookseller to stop selling "Mein Kampf" online in Germany. Last month BarnesandNoble.com, recognizing "the very special problem 'Mein Kampf' poses in the context of German history and for the German government," announced it would no longer sell the book to customers in Germany.
* EBay says that it will respect German law and that any listings of Nazi memorabilia on the EBay site in Germany will be removed immediately. However, the company will continue to sell these items online in the United States, despite Cooper's allegation that the company has simply found "a profitable niche for the veneration of Nazi slogans."
Said spokesman Kevin Pursglove at the San Jose-based auction site, "If an individual can legally sell Nazi paraphernalia at a trade show or on a street corner or through a magazine or in a retail outlet, that person is permitted to sell that material on EBay.
"We understand that some people may be offended by these items, but they are not illegal in this country. EBay is very reluctant to play the role of censor."
And therein lies the debate: Is this a 1st Amendment issue? No, contends Cooper.
"It's a commerce decision. It's a social decision," he says.
Having lured customers with bells and whistles, he contends, Internet marketers are saying, " 'We don't look at the content. Just send us a check.' We're saying to EBay, 'You're now the big boy on the block. Is this something you really want to do?' "
Debating Issues of Free Expression
Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, says, "It's a difficult question." She sympathizes with the Wiesenthal Center's motives but feels "there is a free speech issue involved. It's up to EBay to make that decision for itself. Not everything that people sell would we want to own ourselves, but, after all, this is America. This is not anything the ACLU will be suing about."
In Cooper's view, any debate about the Internet and social responsibility must also address these concerns: hate groups embracing technology to "inspire the lone wolf to do the terrible things" and the specter of the United States becoming "the platform for the export of hate to places like Germany."
He says, "The Internet didn't create psychopaths or high school kids who didn't fit in with their social situation, but what we do see here is the validation. The Internet gives them a sense of empowerment and finding common cause with others."
Web site links, he adds, make it too easy for young people at an alternative music site, for example, to "wind up in a bomb-making site. The World Wide Web shouldn't be a terrorism tutor."
It's different, he contends, from the '70s, when a kid so inclined could readily buy "The Anarchist Cookbook" at the corner bookstore. On the Internet, "the average American kid is not going to start looking for a page about Adolf Hitler, but music links lead him there."
As for those alternative music sites, consider these: Hate Rock Records, whose titles include the collected speeches of George Lincoln Rockwell; pro-white Sunwheel Records and Resistance Records--recently bought by William Pierce, head of the National Alliance and, in Cooper's view, "the most dangerous racist in America"--whose music advocates killing blacks and Jews.
In theory, Cooper acknowledges, the democratic way is to counter hate with debate and argument, but in reality this isn't the answer on the World Wide Web, "unless and until the United States of America is mandating that every single home have a free computer and free access to the Internet. Often the people most vilified by the hate groups don't have access. They don't even know it's happening."
Cooper is not out to kill the goose that laid the golden egg of e-commerce. Nor does he see this issue as "either left-right or 1st Amendment versus thought control. Of course, debate and discussion is sacrosanct in our society. But we're saying, 'Take a look at your product.' "
Online, he points out, "there's no librarian" to suggest, for example, that someone might want to read "Diary of Anne Frank" as well as "Mein Kampf." "The World Wide Web doesn't lend itself to debate. It's promotion. It's advertising. Is it technology in the service of humanity, or is technology leading us around by the nose?"
While he understands that "the last thing in the world e-commerce companies want is to become human rights specialists," he hopes to help raise their awareness that (a) it's the World Wide Web, not the USA Web, and American marketers must respect other countries' laws, and (b) the new technology is not a free pass to say "anything goes." He emphasizes, "American business is not our enemy."
Cooper is not ascribing "nefarious motives" to any company, preferring to think they simply don't give the social issues a second thought. He hopes Internet marketers and providers will regulate themselves and decide not to "bring along the sewage" to the new American marketplace.
He plans to convene a conference next summer in Berlin at which he hopes to attract "the big boys" of the Internet world, as well as young creative types in technology. What does he hope to accomplish?
Well, he says, "you can't legislate against hate, and bigotry is not going to disappear until the Messiah comes. You can only hope to marginalize the message and the messenger."
Beverly Beyette can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.