But total number of internet users has shot up too
Websites expressing extremist, racist or religious-hate views have shown a huge increase since the start of this year, according to new figures.
Sites promoting hate against American, Muslim, Jewish, homosexual and African-American people have increased by 26 per cent since this January – almost as much as the 30 per cent rise during the whole of 2003, according to web- and mail-filtering firm SurfControl.
Websites offering anything from scholarships to dating services for white supremacists, sites promoting the murder of homosexuals, revisionist versions of 9/11 history and other extremist content have grown by about 300 per cent since SurfControl began monitoring the sites in 2000.
However, while the increase in such sites may seem astronomical, at least part of the rise can be attributed to an overall rise in internet subscribers – in the fourth quarter of 2003, 12.1 million UK households could access the internet from home, compared to 2.2 million in the same quarter of 1998.
SurfControl has seen the number of sites spike following political or cultural turmoil. The release of the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ, for example, served as an excuse for some extremist Christians to promote hatred of other religious groups.
Law authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have committed themselves to tackling the problem of sites promoting racial or religious hatred, with the FBI announcing a crackdown on extremist sites and Len Hynds, head of the UK’s National Hi-Tech Crime Unit, calling for a zero tolerance approach to “abhorrent websites” of all kinds.
However, as the controversy over the anti-Semitic Jewwatch website – which ranks top of search giant Google’s ratings for the word ‘Jew’ – has shown, hate websites can be protected by freedom of speech legislation in certain countries.
In countries where incitement to racial and religious hatred is deemed a crime – the UK, for example – the proliferation of hate sites can be a boon to the fight against extremist web content, Steve Purdham, SurfControl’s CEO said.
“There’s a lack of knowledge over how the internet works. People using it in their bedrooms have a feeling of security [but] extremists are now much more exposed… these sites mean people are able to be tracked and traced.”
While the hate sites may get the average web user spewing bile during a casual surf, they can present a more serious problem for businesses.
Purdham recommends getting an acceptable corporate usage policy in place, depending on the individual needs of the business.
“With content, a company needs to decide what’s right for them. If they wouldn’t tolerate someone bringing in anti-Semitic documents into the workplace, why tolerate someone reading it on the web?” he said. “It’s not a black and white issue. Companies need to put in place a policy reflecting their business needs.”