The Net: A Web of hatred?

Hate groups including the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi skinheads are stepping up their use of the Internet to seek young recruits, even children, according to an Anti-Defamation League report released Wednesday.

The report, Poisoning the Web: Hatred Online, offers a laundry list of unsavoury online characters, from Holocaust "revisionists" to a California student whose increasingly popular Web site advocates the destruction of New York City -- and along with it, its black and Jewish populations -- by a nuclear bomb. It's certainly not new that such groups use the Web to spread their message. But a disturbing trend is developing, according to ADL officials: The sites are getting ever-more sophisticated at targeting children.

One explicitly anti-Semitic site, that of the "World Church of the Creator," boasts a special children's section that "utilises enticing graphics and child-friendly language to lure young Web users," Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said in a statement. "Children are urged to have fun solving crossword puzzles while 'educating' themselves" about the group's racist beliefs, Foxman said. The site also asks kids to submit their e-mail addresses and send in questions to the group, he said.

Youngsters are being targeted for two reasons, according to Foxman: They may be too naive to understand what racist groups really stand for, and they spend lots of time online. "The extremists and bigots are watching" the Web's development, and "they're becoming more specialised," he said in an interview.

The report quotes Ku Klux Klan officials as saying the Web has contributed directly to a rise in recruits. "Up until last month, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Realm of Florida was very small," one Klan member, Brian K. Bass, wrote in a recent KKK publication, according to the report. "But now we have a Web site up, and our numbers are growing dramatically. We picked up six new members in just the last two weeks, and have other applications under consideration. I feel that this is due to the Web site," the report quotes Bass as saying.

Another sobering trend is the increasing anonymous online communications among KKK members and other racist groups, Foxman said. "Cowards can hide in the Web's anonymity while reaching out to the most vulnerable members of our society," he said. The report was compiled by the ADL's Internet Monitoring Unit, which researches online activity by hate groups.

The report stops short of advocating that such sites be censored. The ADL calls for individuals and organisations to create new Web sites that refute the racist information available online. "ADL hopes that the public will not only reject extremist propaganda on the Internet, but also choose to use the Internet to promote tolerance," the report states.

Perhaps the main thing parents can do is try to monitor their kids' Internet use as closely as possible, Foxman said in an interview. "Getting parents to take more responsibility is the next challenge," he said. Congress would be unlikely to propose laws specifically targeting racist material online, even though lawmakers have fretted about the proliferation of such material, one observer said.

However, Sen. John McCain did point to hate sites in his bill mandating the use of software filters for schools receiving federal Internet subsidies -- a bill that was marked up by the Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday, said Liza Kessler, a staff counsel at the Centre for Democracy and Technology.

"Hopefully, what will come out of all this is that it will spur the software industry to improve the filters," Kessler said.