Can Software Shield You From Extremist Sites?

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What if you could silence hate speech with a software application? What if you could make it nearly impossible to find on the Web, banishing it the way the Prohibitionists tried to banish alcohol with the Eighteenth Amendment?
That seems to be the thinking behind HateFilter, a program that works with your browser to block out the kinds of extremist and hatemongering sites that “Safety Net” has examined the past few months. Developed by the ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE and the Learning Company, which makes the filtering software CYBER PATROL, HateFilter blacklists hundreds of Web sites that the ADL thinks are promoting “hatred or hostility towards groups…on the basis of their religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other immutable characteristics.” (A trial version is available free at the ADL site.)

Well, fine. Yes, the ADL has been “fighting hate since 1913,” according to Mark Edelman, the group’s director of marketing and communications. But what gives the ADL the right to decide who’s advocating hate? What is HateFilter, and how does it work? Does it, in fact, work at all?

“About 18 months ago, we decided to develop a filter that parents could put on their computer that would prevent their kids from seeing hate sites,” Edelman explains. “What makes this filter special is that when it comes upon a hate site, it redirects you to the ADL, so we can explain why that site is blocked.”

Blocking is what filters do, by using a list of preselected Web addresses and/or by recognizing on a Web site certain phrases or words the filter maker finds objectionable. Though filters are usually associated with preventing kids from gazing upon the wonders at, say, Atomic Sex, Edelman says the joint ADL/Cyber Patrol version works from a blacklist of “several hundred” sites the ADL has dug up through the efforts of its staff and from outside suggestions.

But even the Learning Company concedes that the actual product isn’t much more than an add-on to its standard smut-sniffing version. And that, contends Karen G. Schneider, a librarian and author who coordinated THE INTERNET FILTER ASSESSMENT PROJECT, leaves something to be desired: “There’s no artificial intelligence or sophisticated programming detecting subtle intolerance and disgust for those different from us at, for example, the Family Research Council.”

Completely ignored by HateFilter, the FRC posts a weekly CultureFacts column that warns visitors about the “cultural forces that threaten the traditional family, with a special focus on the homosexual agenda…to redefine marriage and family and propagandize children.” In a recent column, all good Americans were enjoined to roundly protest USA Today’s quoting of Ellen DeGeneres’s mother, who stated that families could be “biological, nuclear, extended, or chosen.”

Neither the ADL nor the Learning Company is willing to disclose which sites are being blocked. The list is a secret. It’s like going for an inoculation to a doctor who won’t tell you what you’re being immunized against.

Does HateFilter work? When “Safety Net” tested it on some of the most spite-filled sites online, it blocked only a few. We quickly pulled up the neo-Nazi STORMFRONT and RESISTANCE RECORDS sites, as well as the gay-bashing GOD HATES FAGS and CHRISTIAN DEFENSE LEAGUE pages.

During our test, it was only when we tried accessing ARYAN NATIONS and NATIONAL ALLIANCE that the “Hate Zone” warning popped up. Clicking on the prominent ADL logo took us back to the group’s site, where we were directed to the Anti-Semitism category–one of nine, including Holocaust Denial, Nation of Islam, and Homophobia.

What can you do? “Most free-thinking adults should realize that the only way to be vigilant about hate propaganda is to be exposed to it from time to time,” says Robert Ellis Smith of PRIVACY JOURNAL. Using such resources as HATEWATCH, the SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER, and the ADL’s own site, you can diminish hatred by, as Schneider advises, “throwing information at it.”

Otherwise, as with Prohibition, you stand the risk of making the forbidden more popular–and, paradoxically, more accepted–than ever.