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Spy vs Spite 

The Clinton administration has praised the Anti-Defamation League for helping shield kids from Internet hate. But should a group that spied on thousands of Californians be allowed to police the Web?

Wednesday, Feb 2 2000
The first snow of the season is falling on New York in big fluffy flakes, making the city look new again. The offices of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, located in U.N. Plaza, are stuffy, the windows steamed. Everyone appears a bit disheveled; rumpled clothes and flattened hat hair seem to be in vogue. Jordan Kessler, a handsome young man with a beard, sits at a computer terminal, talking about how he compiles his list.

Kessler is personally responsible for the ADL's HateFilter, a software program that blocks access to Web sites that, the ADL contends, contain bigoted or hateful speech. This 25-year-old Columbia grad has accepted the enormous task of seeking out and cataloging inflammatory language among the roughly 800 million Web pages available to the public. He has help, of course. The ADL, a group dedicated to securing "justice and fair treatment for all citizens alike," has 30 offices around the country tracking extremists of every different shade, and each office has Kessler's direct line.

Kessler assembles a list of all the groups his organization deems dangerous; it's a list that must be constantly updated because, he says, hatemongers have a tendency to mutate. To be deemed objectionable by the ADL, a site must be cleared by a committee of the organization's managers before it makes Kessler's list. He won't say how many people are on the committee, or reveal the names of the organizations he has labeled as dangerous.

Some of the groups he watches, Kessler says, also watch him. Some revel, just because their sites have been chosen by the ADL, he says. It's like making the big time. The Web designers for the white supremacist site World Church of the Creator, for example, actually promote their work with a quote taken out of context from a Kessler report in which he grudgingly complimented the graphics for that site.

"If their Web site gets blocked by the ADL, in their eyes they've made it," he says. "They think we are all-powerful, in control of the government and everything that stands in their way."

Kessler's screen displays a number of yellow file folders. One folder is titled "Gays," presumably a file on gay-bashers. Another is titled "Arabs," presumably a list of anti-Arab groups. He says he takes great care in reviewing a site before he brings it to the committee. Many sites may be offensive, he says, featuring anti-Semitic jokes or caricatures, but they won't make the list of those to be blocked by the ADL's HateFilter. On the other hand, he says, some sites might be recommended for the list based on what the ADL knows about the organization rather than the content of the site. His organization has been monitoring hate groups for more than 85 years, he says, bringing an expertise that stretches far beyond HTML or Java codes.

The ADL has been fighting anti-Semitism, in its own way, since 1913. The organization was founded by Sigmund Livingston, a Chicago attorney, hoping to fight the overt presence of anti-Semitism in American society following the turn of the century. Livingston began with two desks, $200, and the sponsorship of the Independent Order of B'nai B'rith, meaning "Children of the Covenant." Since then the organization has grown into a national nonprofit organization that took in $46 million in revenues in 1998 and employs 200 people in its New York headquarters alone. In the 1960s the ADL fought stridently for the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. More recently it pioneered efforts to create a model for "hate crime" laws.

It is an organization with a unique mission, given that its existence is largely based on the continuance of racism and bigotry. If anti-Semitism had disappeared from the face of the Earth during the 20th century, the ADL might have withered away, too. But even five decades beyond the fall of Nazi Germany, the world continues to be a prejudiced place, and the organization still regularly denounces anti-Semitic statements made in print, over the airwaves, and, more recently, over the Internet.

The Web is a new frontier, presenting the ADL with fresh challenges and opportunities for growth. The medium has given every electronic pamphleteer the reach of a worldwide television broadcasting network, making it easy for anyone with a computer to spread his message, racist or otherwise. Because the Web is essentially unregulated, the ADL believes cyberspace is "a dangerous place for children," according to the organization's literature. "There are no parents or teachers standing by to guide and advise a child who has come upon a site that promotes hate. Without that guidance, there is a real chance children will simply accept what they read as fact."

In response to this supposed threat to young minds, the ADL has stepped up its own efforts to combat intolerance by introducing the HateFilter, which runs on Mattel's CyberPatrol, a software package that blocks a wide gamut of material on the Internet. Consumers who purchase the HateFilter receive all of CyberPatrol's features, including categories other than hate speech, among them graphic violence and pornography. But CyberPatrol purchased on its own does not include the HateFilter, because Mattel has its own version of what it considers hate speech, and does not market the filter, nor does it necessarily approve of what the ADL's HateFilter blocks, company officials say.

So far, the ADL HateFilter has been marketed as a service to be used in the home. But that may soon change. CyberPatrol is already in 15,000 private and public libraries, schools, and universities, and the ADL has not ruled out broadening the distribution of HateFilter software to public institutions. "Right now, the HateFilter is not meant to be used by the government, but over the next few months we will be discussing whether we will advocate for its use in schools and libraries," says Sue Stengel, an ADL attorney.

About The Author

Matt Isaacs


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