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Net called boon to hate groups

The number of hate groups in the United States rose by 20 percent last year in part because of the Net, the Southern Poverty Law Center says.

The number of hate groups in the United States rose by 20 percent last year in part because the Net makes it easier to preach intolerance and to recruit new members, the Southern Poverty Law Center said today.

According to the center's Intelligence Project, there are now 474 hate groups in the country, a surge that it says is fueled by captivating racist sites, the grassroots power of the medium, and a boom in "white power rock 'n' roll music."

"A few years ago, for a lone Klansman to produce a pamphlet that would maybe reach 100 people, it would take a lot of money and work, not to mention having to find a sympathetic printer," said Mark Potok, editor of the center's Intelligence Project. "Today that same man, for a few dollars, can put up a slickly packaged Web page and potentially reach millions."

The center documented 163 Web sites allegedly promoting white supremacy, such as the Ku Klux Klan's sites, and others encouraging the hatred of non-Christians. However, 12 of the sites belonged to black separatist groups, the center says. The count doesn't include sites that deny the occurrence of the Holocaust.

Almost half the sites were erected by organized groups that can be contacted and joined or offer to mail out bigoted materials, Potok added.

"The world has shrunk for haters. Now they feel a part of a movement--the Internet gives them a sense of community felt among racists," he said. "Plus these movements need youth, and the Net is providing access."

But the Net also is providing a louder voice for those who want to combat hate speech, Stanton McCandlish, program director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said today. The medium is amplifying all aspects of society, and bigotry is no exception, he added.

"The Net is reflecting what is going in the rest of our culture. We're also seeing huge increase in human rights advocacy, for example, because scattered groups in third-world countries are enabled by this technology," he said.

"People use the Net to research and advocate the interests they already have," McCandlish noted. "It does let hate groups reach more people than they otherwise could, but the same goes for antihate groups."

The Southern Poverty Law Center warns that parents should be concerned about their children's access to compelling packaged hate propaganda. For example, the center alleges that one group's site has a section called "creativity for children," which aims "to help the younger members of the White Race understand our fight."

But the center says the sites shouldn't be shut down.

"We are not in favor of censoring the Net in any way. It doesn't work, and is not technically possible," Potok said. "I'm also not saying that people should forbid their children from visiting these sites. Like all things in a free society, one needs to talk to their kids about what these sites are, and give them the tools and information to understand why the ideas being promoted by these sites are so bad."

Filtering software maker Cyber Patrol and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) announced a different solution this year--a filter that will bar access to sites deemed anti-Semitic or racist by the ADL.

When a site is blocked by the filter, the user will be redirected to ADL's Web site, which features articles about prejudice and bigotry. Like other versions of Cyber Patrol, the ADL version will cost $29.95 if downloaded from the Web.