Europes anti-Nazi laws stymied by U.S. web hosts

The website in Vienna is awash with neo-Nazi symbolism and even sarcastically refers to the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp as Austria’s largest open-air museum.

But attempts to cripple the xenophobic “Alpen-Donau” forum have been hindered by the fact it’s housed on a U.S. server.

It’s an example of how free speech on one side of the Atlantic can help spread hate speech on the other.

A neo-Nazi website in Vienna is housed on a U.S. server. photo/ap/ronald zak

While Austria bans Nazi glorification and Holocaust denial, the United States has nearly unrestricted freedom of speech rights.

Three people suspected of being behind the website were arrested in April, including Gottfried Kuessel, one of the Alpine republic’s leading neo-Nazis. But until a few weeks ago it continued to spew extremist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Germany has also run into the problem of shutting down U.S.-hosted neo-Nazi websites.

Hungary has faced a similar hurdle for years, although hate speech is considered a crime there only if it incites specific acts of violence or abuse. Hungarian right-wing groups regularly target Gypsies and other minorities.

Austrian investigators have suggested that, for forensic reasons, it’s in their interest that the website stay online for now because it provides them with vital clues in their probe aimed at tracking down remaining suspects.

But those personally targeted by the site want U.S. authorities to shut it down immediately.

“This is blatant anti-Semitism and blatant racism,” said Willi Mernyi, president of the Mauthausen Committee, a Holocaust awareness group.

The website recently posted photos of Mernyi and implied he is to blame for acts of vandalism at the former concentration camp where the Nazis murdered about 100,000 people. The site has also posted pictures of teenagers who took part in workshops organized by the group, Mernyi said.

U.S. officials say their hands are tied unless the site violates U.S. laws.

“I think it’s fair to say we don’t agree with what’s on that website, but we agree that free speech as defined by the United States takes precedence over what their views are,” said an official familiar with the issue who asked not to be named.

The U.S. norm is that people are free to say anything as long as it doesn’t infringe upon another person’s rights.

In Austria, freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution but is limited by a ban on propagating Nazi ideology. Inciting hatred on the basis of any ideology is a crime under the Austrian penal code.

Raimund Fastenbauer, a senior Jewish community official, said U.S. authorities have legal grounds to cooperate in taking down the site.

“In part, there have been some concrete threats we believe would be punishable under American law,” Fastenbauer said, noting that postings have included not only photos but also personal phone numbers of Jewish community members, as well as veiled or coded calls for action against individuals.

In Hungary, the government succeeded in July 2008 in temporarily shutting the extremist website, saying at the time that it did so with help from U.S. authorities. Within six weeks it became active again, moving to another U.S. server, and has been online ever since.

The site is controversial because of its racist content, which includes anti-Semitic and anti-Gypsy articles and imagery. It also has published cell

phone numbers and home addresses belonging to judges and prosecutors who were involved in court cases against people who took part in the country’s anti-government riots of 2006.

In both countries, a long-term solution on how to deal with the situation seems far off.

“It’s a cat and mouse game,” said Christian Pilnacek, director general for criminal law at Austria’s Justice Ministry, “but one that has more to do with technical advances than different legal systems.”

Pablo Gorondi
in Hungary and Geir Moulson in Germany contributed to this report.