German Group to Sue Web Hate Sites

Source: The NewsFactor Network | February 21st 2001

German Group To Sue Web Hate Sites

By Michelle Lewis

Internet service providers (ISPs) that make neo-Nazi or racist Web sites accessible in Germany will soon see legal action from that nation’s Central Council for Jews. The latest word from the Berlin-based group is that it will file suit against Internet companies that publish Web content banned under German law.

Council vice president Michael Friedman told reporters that it would look at all ISPs in Germany that provide hate information “on the spot.” The group blames the German government’s lax enforcement against Nazi propaganda for its initiative.

International Distinctions

As Web-based companies seek to expand into overseas markets with differing traditions surrounding free speech rights, actions such as the Central Council’s initiative are becoming increasingly common.

The giant Net portal Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) recently removed and banned items glorifying the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis after a highly publicized court battle in France. A French court argued that French laws designed to prevent Internet users from accessing Web sites displaying, selling or auctioning any item that incites racism — including Nazi memorabilia — should apply even when the Web site is based in another country.

“We shouldn’t be surprised to see other such initiatives being launched across Europe, possibly in Canada and even Australia,” Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international human rights organization, told NewsFactor Network.

German Audiences

The number of German-language sites containing offensive content reached 800 in 2000, up from 330 in 1999, according to the German Interior Ministry.

The proliferation of neo-Nazi sites had been blamed on United States laws, which offer free speech protection for many hate sites under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Some sites originating in the U.S. specifically target German Internet users.

Many people whose Web sites have been banned by German ISPs have turned to this country, said Cooper. “And that makes the work of the German authorities that much tougher, from their point of view.”

Differing Democracies

Repercussions from the clashing laws between the U.S. and Germany may be felt worldwide. If each country is allowed to ban information based upon its own legal code, Web publishers could find themselves involved in endless litigation.

According to the Center for Democracy and Technology, a court ruling against Yahoo! has potentially dangerous implications for free expression and e-commerce around the globe. The group urged national courts not to hold Web publishers liable for “the constantly changing and potentially restrictive laws” in foreign jurisdictions.

Germany’s legal system has been under increased scrutiny since its Supreme Court called for the retrial of Australia-based Holocaust revisionist Frederick Toben, whose Web sites deny that the Holocaust ever took place. Toben had been acquitted previously on the grounds that his Web sites were operated on computers outside Germany.

Sites Gain Perspective

Abraham Cooper told NewsFactor that his goal in meeting with international groups is to establish a consortium of countries that will request that Web site operators review their operations and respond to cultural and legal sensitivities with knowledge and understanding.

In the case of Germany’s ban on hate speech, Cooper said: “If you don’t have the voluntary cooperation of the Americans, then you’re leaving enough of a loophole for a Mack truck to drive through.”

Cooper agrees that Web sites trafficking in hate content and products pose challenging problems for the Internet, but the Wiesenthal Center’s commitment to free speech on the Web remains firm.

“We believe in the First Amendment,” Cooper said, “and we work very hard to try to come up with strategies for the World Wide Web itself, because that’s where the battle is.”