Online, the shadow of Auschwitz

From Christopher Wolf, chair of the International Network Against Cyber-Hate and of the Internet Task Force of the Anti-Defamation League, is a partner in the Washington office of Proskauer Rose LLP.:

Human rights experts from around the world gathered in Poland recently in a bid to counter
the misuse of the Internet by hate groups
. Sitting in a Warsaw conference room, the group viewed the latest online content produced by neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic hate groups, all reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda seen in that city more than 60 years ago.

Gone are the days when hate groups met in dingy rooms. Now, the Internet is the platform of choice for fringe groups that want to look mainstream. And as the promoters of intolerance and hate well know, on the Internet, video is king.

In Poland, the experts on Internet hate speech viewed a kind of “hate film festival” – slickly produced videos promoting white power and demonizing Jews, blacks, gays and other minorities, all available online. The music videos and film were Hollywood quality. A kid looking at what effectively are recruitment ads to join the intolerance movement would be impressed with the production values.

Today, the platform of choice for distribution of online videos is YouTube, which Google recently agreed to purchase for $1.65 billion. YouTube has capitalized on the advent of broadband Internet connections to make it a simple proposition to upload and share videos. Unsurprisingly, there has been a surge in hate videos posted online recently.

One likewise would expect a proliferation of pornographic videos on YouTube. But the YouTube terms of service make it clear that pornographic offerings are not allowed. As a result, and through the obvious attention of the YouTube managers, smutty videos are not to be found on the service.

The YouTube terms of service also prohibit “harassing, hateful, racially or ethnically offensive” content. Citing the prohibitions in the terms of service, human rights monitors have brought hate videos to the attention of YouTube, and some videos have disappeared. But the presence of many others shows that the current management of YouTube makes the elimination of hateful content a low priority.

The folks at Google have been far more sensitive about the presence of hate speech on the Internet. When the Anti-Defamation League pointed out that the search term “Jew” produced a
virulently anti-Semitic site as a highly ranked search listing, Google volunteered to alert users to the fact that the listed site was in fact a hate site. And executives of Google have reached out to groups like the league to explore ways to counter online hate speech, and have even attended conferences on the subject.

While the First Amendment permits a wide range of speech in America, including hate speech, private companies do not have to allow their platforms to be used for distribution of such content. That is why activists fighting online hate take heart from terms of service that set standards. So far, it appears that Google takes such standards seriously. Let’s hope that if
the Google/YouTube deal goes through, enforcement of the prohibition against hate speech becomes a real priority on the online video service.

We know too well what happens when citizens – including corporate citizens – fail to act
when hate speech proliferates. A searing reminder was provided to some of the people attending the Warsaw conference on Internet hate speech, who concluded their visit to Poland with a trip to Auschwitz.

Before walking to the crematoria at the concentration camp, visitors were invited to a screening of an orientation film containing footage from the days after the camp was liberated. The images are predictably horrific and the film makes the point that the murder of six million was the culmination of a regime of prejudice and hate.

For the people viewing the film, and the camp, the experience was painful but the lesson was profound: Expressions of hate and intolerance can lead to unimaginable acts of inhumanity.

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