THE EMERGENCE of the information superhighway has transformed the rules of engagement in the marketplace of ideas. Virtually overnight, the new world of cyberspace -- combining the communicative clout of newspapers, telephones, faxes, photo transmittal services, reference libraries and broadcast outlets -- is providing direct access to some 20 million homes and education institutions worldwide.
Small wonder that more than 50 hate groups, long frustrated by their inability to package and deliver their message in a consistent format, have rushed to embrace the new technologies. Consider:
* In Chicago, the Minuteman electronic bulletin board has been posting virulent text and visual homophobic files. One cartoon depicts a gorilla complaining that it was infected with AIDS by a black person.
* In California, following passage of Proposition 187, Prodigy's on-line users were encouraged to send $20 and sign on with a group that promised to "protect" the white race by ridding America of the "hordes" of Mexican residents -- legal and illegal -- who threaten to "overrun" the country.
* An Internet posting regularly offers, to the first 250 inquiries, a 30-minute "documentary," filmed at Auschwitz last year, that purportedly shows the site of a "swimming pool" where camp inmates relaxed "after a long day at work." A "tour" of a gas chamber claims to prove that no one was gassed at that infamous death camp.
In all these cases, the rhetoric and visuals are not new. What is new is the opportunity to cheaply, effectively and directly market hate to a coveted audience -- the young, who are the heaviest users of cyberspace.
With access to the Internet limitless, the scope of hate-group activities is rapidly expanding. The Institute for Historical Review, the leading voice of Holocaust denial in the United States, has set up a site on the World Wide Web portion of the Internet where its literature can be obtained free.
Ernst Zundel, Canada's notorious Nazi apologist, has announced plans to start his own Web page, using either a provider in the United States or Europe to avoid the scrutiny of Canadian authorities. Meanwhile, Tony McAleer, founder of the white supremacist Canadian Liberty Net, wants a Web page, too. Netcom is providing FTP (file transfer protocol) space for the National Alliance, America's most dangerous hate group, enabling it to archive a wide range of files that any Internet user can access.
Not to be outdone, the youth-oriented Resistance magazine has announced that Resistance Records, a label that produces white-supremacist music, plans to have a computer bulletin-board service opened on the Internet that will allow users to download its album covers and lyrics.
An incident in Texas highlights yet another advantage the information superhighway gives bigots -- anonymity and deniability. Witness the recent equivalent of a hi-tech hate drive-by in Texas: Someone broke into the electronic mail account of a professor and fired off a virulent anti-black and anti-Semitic attack to 20,000 computer users in four states. The attack was authored by the National Alliance, whose leader simply denied sending the message. Its source was a convenient "anonymous I.D."
There seems to be a host of good excuses to shy away from this problem. First, there's the technology itself: It is complex and ever changing. Second, there are legitimate freedom-of-speech concerns in play: Few Americans want to be the thought police. But developments in Europe provide a sneak preview of what's in store if America takes a totally laissez-faire approach to hi-tech hate.
Neo-Nazis are using the new technology to promote two dozen computer hate games, including the wildly popular game in Austria, KZ (concentration camp) Manager. They have published anti-Nazi hit lists and offered young followers on-line lessons in how to build and use a bomb. Recently, a Missouri teen-ager was turned in to police by his father after the latter discovered a bomb his son made following instructions downloaded from Internet.
Is there anything that can be done? Or is the Department of Commerce's Telecommunication Information Agency correct when it recently concluded that the only way to respond to hi-tech hate is to employ the same technology to counter it?
More counter-argument is certainly solid advice. But the scope and magnitude of the problems clearly show that the challenge of the information superhighway extends far beyond providing a hi-tech soap box for a few crackpots.
As a starting point for action, we should evaluate the function of a particular part of cyberspace and look to how more traditional modes of communication -- the telephone, newspaper and television -- handle menacing speech. Two examples:
* Hateful speech is, in general, "protected speech," but is there there any reason why, at a minimum, a recipient of any unsolicited and threatening message from the superhighway should not have the right to know instantly the source of the message?
Right now, the Internet, in effect, provides stealth technology for bigots, child pornographers and the like. Accountability, not anonymity, should be the operative principle.
* Guidelines at CNN and at some newspapers forbid certain advertisers, say, the KKK, from gaining a forum simply by paying for it. The Federal Trade Commission maintains a cadre of attorneys who monitor everything from Big Mac ads to the latest infomercial under the rubric of "truth in advertising." Surely, there should be reason to believe that such safeguards could become a part of the hi-tech landscape.
By demanding personal responsibility and accountability, it may yet be possible to prevent bigots from gaining a free ride in cyberspace.
Rabbi Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.