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.