ADL wants to screen out hate with Internet software weapons

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The Supreme Court, President Clinton and First Amendment activists agree: The Internet must remain an electronic marketplace of ideas, free of censorship.

But the Anti-Defamation League's national director, Abraham Foxman, sees the Net's World Wide Web as a kind of "Wild, Wild West" in which hate speech and anti-Semitism run amok.

"Within the parameters of freedom of speech, we have a responsibility of making it a safer neighborhood," said Foxman, who visited San Francisco last week for the first annual ADL Civil Rights Luncheon.

The Net's a place where white supremacists, neo-Nazis and conspiracy-mongers are no longer relegated to quietly delivering their messages in plain brown wrappers, Foxman said. Instead, they can reach millions via a Web site on a computer or TV screen.

It's the same screen that delivers news from CNN or NBC, and thus shields these hate-providers with a layer of credibility, he added.

Young Americans unable to differentiate between propaganda and facts may stumble on these hate sites as they wander the Web browsing for information, and fall under their influence, Foxman said.

Hoping to "aggressively" counteract the spread of Internet anti-Semitism and racism, the ADL is proposing a kind of universal software that content providers could use to help warn Netizens about hate sites.

"I would love to have some bells go off that say, `Danger, hate zone,'" Foxman said.

That is more than wishful thinking on Foxman's part. The ADL has held several meetings with the Internet's two leading service providers, America Online and Prodigy, as well as with software producers, about ringing those metaphorical bells.

One plan is to produce ADL software that would identify hate sites when a subscriber to AOL or Prodigy jumps from those providers onto the Web. A message would appear on the user's screen identifying hate sites as such.

Such a tool would shine a light on Internet hate, Foxman said, but would not attempt to shut the hate sites down. That type of warning would meet the high court's ruling that Internet speech is protected under First Amendment rights and cannot be legislated or controlled.

"We're not stopping hate from being there," Foxman said. "It is a filter — but there's a difference between a filter and a ban."

Some critics have charged that groups such as the ADL should simply ignore white supremacists or figures like Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan — that the group overplays marginal figures as a way of keeping anti-Semitism in the public eye.

But Foxman strongly disagrees. "The fact is, they're there. Do I want to bring attention to who they are? I don't mind. It's still the best way I know to expose them."

In fact, Foxman added, the same critics who blasted the ADL for challenging Farrakhan backed the ADL when it publicized the neo-Nazi background of former Louisiana legislator David Duke.

AOL officials have said they are also considering removing the "AOL.com" address from certain hate-group sites that have signed up with the provider, or providing information about the hate sites automatically when someone types in keywords such as "KKK."

Meanwhile, the ADL is hoping to provide parents and their children with a kind of educational software to combat Internet hate at a time when most American Jews believe anti-Semitism remains their biggest threat.

A recent American Jewish Committee annual survey found that 61 percent of respondents believed that anti-Semitism is more of a danger to Jews than intermarriage. And while a majority of those Jews were older, less educated and, perhaps not coincidentally, intermarried, some 44 percent of Jews over 40 say anti-Semitism is a "very serious problem."

The survey ran counter to the conventional wisdom that American Jews are flourishing in an era of unprecedented acceptability by non-Jewish America. But Foxman sees more danger signs.

A 1964 ADL poll found that 14 percent of Americans believed Jews held too much power. A 1993 survey found that 31 percent perceived the same thing. That same 1993 poll also found that 35 percent of Americans believed American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States.

"These are classical anti-Semitic attitudes which have caused havoc" in the past, Foxman said.

And he maintained that while political anti-Semitism may have waned, a generalized social anti-Semitism that allows such myths to survive still exists.

The rise to mainstream power of such figures as Farrakhan and Pat Buchanan reflect that anti-Semitism, he added.

"There is a tolerance for it."

It's a tolerance that the ADL hopes to fight, in part with high-tech weapons, he said.

"We have never really given anti-Semitism a death blow."

Foxman was the keynote speaker at the ADL event at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, where Carl and Virginia Pearlstein and David and Riva Berelson were awarded the Pearlstein Civil Rights Award.