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Hate vs. free speech

As fringe groups continue to carve out niches on the Net, online services are grappling with the issue of free speech.

As extremist groups proliferate in cyberspace, online services are facing unprecedented legal and ethical questions over access to such controversial sites through their networks.

Although no U.S. laws prohibit extremist sites, services are encountering criticism for allowing access to groups ranging from marijuana advocates to citizen militias and neo-Nazis. According to a study by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, racist sites have increased to more than 300 from about 50 at the beginning of last year.

The burgeoning presence of fringe groups has drawn particular scrutiny in recent weeks as the Oklahoma City bombing trial has begun and as the mainstream media continues to indulge its obsession with the online activities of the Heaven's Gate cult.

While we do not believe our role is to restrict access to information, we do want to protect children.
Ed Graczyk, MSN director of show marketing
This month, America Online, the largest online service, has come under strong criticism from the Anti-Defamation League and others for a Web page stored on its servers that promoted the Ku Klux Klan. And just yesterday, CNET NEWS.COM reported that an infamous antigay site had found a host with an ISP that was willing to look the other way: junk emailer Cyber Promotions.

The issue of free speech for extremist groups is a particularly difficult one for online services like AOL. As Internet companies, they are heavily influenced by the wide-open civil libertarian character of cyberspace; at the same time, these services are seeking to refine their images as safe havens for Net-novice families who represent the future of their business markets.

"We definitely see this as an industry challenge," said Ed Graczyk, director of show marketing for Microsoft Network. "While we do not believe our role is to restrict access to information--we're big believers in free speech--we do want to protect children."

MSN, like competitors AOL and CompuServe, have membership policies against any form of bigotry in sites maintained on their proprietary networks. However, online services are reluctant to extend those prohibitions beyond their firewalls, saying it is impossible to regulate information throughout the entire Internet.

Moreover, proprietary online services and other companies that provide Net access are under competing pressure from free-speech advocates concerned that any move to limit communication will open a Pandora's box of constitutional issues. At present, they are not obligated to extend First Amendment protections to subscribers as a company in the private sector.

"All of this reminds me of when I was on the law journal staff at Georgetown," said David Post, co-director of the Cyberspace Law Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. "There was a big controversy over suspending shipments of law journals to South Africa. It's something we were entitled to do, but I thought it was stupid. Once you make a decision like that, you're committed to making others. Who needs that? What about Guatemala or Taiwan?"