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Hate sites find a home on U.S. computer servers

December 16, 2007|Russell Working | Chicago Tribune

It might come as a surprise to the soldiers who defeated fascism in World War II, but the U.S. has become a refuge for Nazism and other brands of extremism over the last decade.

On the Internet, that is.

Hundreds of foreign-language websites are using U.S. servers to dodge laws abroad that prohibit Holocaust denial or racist and anti-Semitic speech. Incorporated by businesses in the U.S., they thrive out of reach of prosecutors in Europe, Canada and elsewhere.

Locally, the connections range from Radio Islam (radioislam.org), a hate site inspired by a Moroccan exile in Sweden, to a site created by a former Cicero, Ill., man who was extradited to Germany for Holocaust denial. One Chicago server company is home to 17 hate sites, eight of them European.

In the past, Berlin has estimated that computers in the U.S. host 800 such sites in the German language alone, although its embassy in Washington says no current count is available.

The noxious sites, often filled with anti-Semitism or crude ranting about blacks and immigrants, spotlight a trans-Atlantic divide over hate speech. Many European countries have criminalized Holocaust denial or racist speech, while the 1st Amendment grants Nazis and other fringe groups the freedom to spread their message in the U.S.

"Essentially, our view is it's better to be able to confront their ideas and see what they're up to," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization. "But most Europeans regard the Americans as insane on this point. They really do."

Radio Islam, which lists a Chicago post office box as its contact address, has frustrated the Swedish government for years, prosecutors said in phone interviews. Hosted on a server in Washington state, its contents include paranoiac writings and the complete text of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" in at least 17 languages.

Much of the site is devoted to extolling Ahmed Rami, a Moroccan exile in Sweden who claims he fled to Europe after attempting to assassinate his country's king. In his adopted home, he made vitriolic radio broadcasts until Swedish authorities shut down his program and even jailed him in the 1990s.

But suddenly the U.S.-based Radio Islam website popped up promoting Rami's paranoid views that the United States is occupied by Jewish forces, Hitler was a misunderstood hero, and Judaism is not a religion but a "dangerous Mafia."

In an interview from Stockholm, Rami claimed to have nothing to do with the site.

"It's a group of men or teenagers who put it up," Rami said. "Sometimes I write something, and it ends up on their website."

(The Rami-oriented site has nothing to do with another Chicago-based Radio Islam, which disavows racism and reports that it has interviewed Holocaust survivors on the air.)

Little study has been done on the extent to which the Web inspires real-world crime, but Brian Marcus, director of Internet monitoring with the Anti-Defamation League in New York, said cyber hate motivated Benjamin Smith, a gunman who shot his way across Illinois and Indiana in 1999. He targeted blacks, Jews and Asians, killing two people and wounding nine before committing suicide.

The violence is not limited to the United States.

British and Polish journalists and human rights activists have demanded their governments shut down two allied hate sites called Redwatch. The sites publish "enemies lists" with home addresses, and they have been blamed for egging on violence by the far right.

British journalist Peter Lazenby, a reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post, found his photographs and former address posted on the British version of Redwatch, which maintains three Web addresses on U.S. servers.

After Redwatch posted its blacklist, a thug stabbed a trade union leader in the face outside his home last year, and two schoolteachers' home and car were firebombed in 2003.

"The government says because these sites are based in the United States and [because of] your 1st Amendment, nothing can be done," Lazenby said from Leeds, England. "Well, they certainly manage to shut down pedophile sites and arrest the people behind them."

For its part, Redwatch says it doesn't encourage violence and was created in response to leftists' attacks on white nationalists. "We consider Marxists and Capitalists as traitors and they will face the people's courts someday to pay for their crimes," Redwatch said in an online statement.

In Warsaw, authorities have struggled to shut down the U.S.-hosted, Polish-language Redwatch. The site promotes the message of the Creativity Movement, which formed in Illinois and has long included Chicago Polish neo-Nazis.

A multilingual website established by a Cicero man continues to sell literature and raise money for the man's defense even though he was deported to Germany in 2005 to serve a prison term for Holocaust denial.

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