[Paleopsych] NYT: Hate Messages on Google Site Draw Concern
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Mon Feb 7 20:33:03 UTC 2005
The New York Times > Technology > Hate Messages on Google Site Draw Concern
By GARY RIVLIN
SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 6 - Over the last year, millions of Internet
users have gravitated to Orkut, a Web site created and run by
Google that permits people, by invitation only, to join any of a
long list of online communities.
Communities have been created around a shared interest in photography,
Miles Davis's music and travel to offbeat places. A small minority,
however, advance a hatred for Jews, blacks or gays, including a "Death
to the Jews" site and a site called "Death to Blacks."
By now no one should be surprised that people use the Internet to
spread repugnant views about race, religion or sexuality. But what is
different about Orkut, online specialists say, is that the hate-filled
dialogues are taking place inside a members-only social network site
that - at least in theory - strictly forbids this kind of conduct in
its user's agreement.
The hatemongering is fast becoming an embarrassment for Google, the
world's most popular search engine, particularly because the company
has adopted "don't be evil" as its motto. The potential for tarnishing
Google's gold-plated brand name also underscores the risks the company
faces as it expands into new Internet businesses in which it has less
"Given the prestige and familiarity of Google, I think this is an
important development, if not quite radically new," said Cass R.
Sunstein, a professor of law at the University of Chicago and author
of the book "Republic.com," which concludes that the Internet
inadvertently helps foster extreme viewpoints.
For Google, the trouble on Orkut - which is still in beta, or test,
form - could easily escalate. A prosecutor in Brazil, where the
service is especially popular, has already initiated an investigation
into some of the more virulent Orkut sites.
For the moment, Google is not saying much about the issue. In response
to a request for comment, a Google spokeswoman, Eileen Rodriguez,
wrote in an e-mail message, "There are instances when orkut.com
members misuse the service, but it is a very small number compared to
everyone who uses it. There is a certain amount of trust we have to
place in our users." Google would not pinpoint the number of people
signed up for Orkut, but characterized it as "millions."
Orkut members are required to follow the company's "terms of service
and community standards," Ms. Rodriguez wrote, which state that "an
account cannot upload, transmit or contain material that is hateful or
offensive based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender
or sexual orientation."
When users "don't follow these terms and we are made aware of an
issue, we take the necessary steps, which may include removing the
content," she said. Google would not say if it had ever taken such
Internet law and custom generally exempt Internet service providers
from responsibility for the behavior of their users. But when it comes
to social networking sites like Orkut that invite users to seek out
potential business contacts, dates or like-minded souls through links
with friends and friends of friends, the responsibilities of the
Internet host are more ambiguous.
"When these new tools are introduced to the social world, the social
norms, like manners and etiquette, and basic questions of who's
responsible for what, get all scrambled," said Lee Rainie, director of
the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "What we're seeing is the
havoc that the Internet wreaked on plenty of business is now playing
out in the social world."
Despite the company's stated policies, Orkut users - who are allowed
to participate only if invited by a current member - can join the
2,300 people who already belong to an "I Hate Queens, Faggots and
Gays" group, created in August by a Brazilian Orkut member. When
setting up the community, the group's founder described it as a forum
for Portuguese-speaking people to "show your indignation and make
jokes" about a "type of person" who "is gaining in society." Because
access to the Orkut site requires membership, general Internet users
cannot stumble accidentally onto these groups.
Orkut members can also sign up to join a myriad of communities
dedicated to despising people of color, including one in English that
advocates the founder's position of death to all black people.
The founder of that group, Kiarash Poursaleh, who described himself in
his profile as an 18-year-old living in Tehran, also listed "Mein
Kampf" by Hitler as a favorite book, named "shooting" as his favorite
sport and described his humor as "friendly." All members create a
personal profile and can add their own communities to the Orkut site.
Mr. Poursaleh has joined dozens of other English-language Orkut
communities, including the "Adolf Hitler SS Army Fan Club" and an
"anti-Jewry" community, as well as a group for fans of the television
Mr. Poursaleh, who did not respond to an e-mail request for an
interview, is also a member of "Anti-Arab Iranians," a community with
the motto, "We Hate Arabs!!! Kill Them All!"
Other social networking sites have confronted similar issues of
hatemongering, but the problem is more pronounced at Orkut because the
service encourages people to create and participate in online
communities of like-minded individuals. Community groups help to
distinguish Orkut from its competitors, like Friendster, the first
widely popular social networking site.
Tribe Networks is another social networking site that encourages users
to create communities of shared interest. "Mainly we're reactive,
rather than proactive, when it comes to these hate sites," said Mark
J. Pincus, the chief executive of Tribe, based in San Francisco. "But
we have a full-time staffer who looks for these kinds of things and
deals with complaints when they come up."
Plugging the word "hate" into the site's search engine delivered a
listing of more than 200 "tribes," but they tended to be more humorous
and offbeat. Users have created groups for those who hate "the
n-word," online dating, dogs, ranch dressing or any of a random list
of B-list celebrities (Ryan Seacrest, Brittany Murphy, Carrot Top).
Though Orkut began life a year ago as a venue for Silicon Valley's
digerati, now nearly two-thirds of registered users are from Brazil.
Google said one explanation for this seemingly inexplicable phenomenon
was that Brazilians are quick to adopt new technologies.
In late January, Christiano Jorge Santos, a state prosecutor in São
Paulo, began a criminal investigation of some of the hate communities
hosted by Orkut. The impetus was the cyberassault of a 13-year-old
black child who lives in São Paulo. Those behind a Portuguese language
community called "Antiheroes" posted a copy of the child's picture at
the site, without his knowledge, and then invited visitors to "unload
all your fury on this poor, innocent little black kid. Click on him
and get revenge."
Such an action is clearly criminal under Brazilian law, Mr. Santos
said. "That's racism, and in Brazil racism is a crime," he said.
Under Brazilian law, it is a crime to practice, induce or incite
discrimination or prejudice on the grounds of race, color, ethnicity,
religion or national origin. If convicted, offenders could serve two
to five years in prison, in addition to paying a sizable fine.
"The U.S. is pretty unusual providing the broad protection we do to
hate speech," said Professor Sunstein. In "South America, Europe -
Google could have problems with many other jurisdictions."
Mr. Santos, the author of a book on hate crimes in Brazil, is
targeting "all the communities that use racist and discriminatory
terms on the site www.orkut.com," according to documents he filed
in court. Because Brazilian law does not include discrimination based
on sexuality in its criminal code, those behind sites like "I Hate
Transvestites" would not face criminal charges.
Among the Orkut groups that Mr. Santos has focused on is a "Death to
Blacks" site, written in Portuguese. That group's founder, Alex Pazzo,
also created the "Death to the Jews" group, also written in
Portuguese. (Mr. Pazzo did not respond to an e-mail message, sent
through the Orkut system, seeking comment.)
It is also unlikely that Google could be held criminally responsible
in a Brazilian court, Mr. Santos said, since he would have to prove
that the company was intentionally complicit in disseminating racist
materials. Nevertheless, Google could be sued for damages in a
Brazilian civil court, he said, because of a lack of precautionary
measures against racist crimes.
Other Portuguese-language Orkut groups include "I Hate Argentines," "I
Hate Transvestites" and "I Hate the Universal Church," which refers to
the evangelical church popular among Brazil's poor. The majority of
the Orkut hate sites seem to be written in Portuguese, but many are
written in English as well.
For instance, an English-language "Anti-Jews" site, created in
November, lists Schenectady, N.Y., as its home base. The community
logo is a caricature of a man with a Star of David tattooed on his
forehead. The site was created by Timothy Schultz, an Orkut member who
says in his profile that he was born in Germany but now lives in the
United States. He describes his mother as "Persian," but assures those
reading his Orkut profile that both parents are "Aryan."
The group's mission statement declares that it matters not whether
members are Christian, Muslim or Buddhist, "the fact is we are all
angry about what they have done and what they are doing to human
beings all around the world." While the group has only 98 members,
they come from a variety of places around the globe, like Iran, Korea
and Marblehead, Mass.
In one of the oddities of an online universe in which software, not a
human brain, is behind a service, Orkut lists a "Jesus Christ" site
("for people who love Jesus") as a "related community" to "Anti-Jews."
At the Anti-Jews site, when a woman going by the screen name Wasay 666
said that she was against the murder of Jews, several posters scoffed
at her view.
What concerns Professor Sunstein is that "if you get like-minded
people together around a hatred of Jews, or blacks, or whatever, they
end up being more hateful."
Todd Benson contributed reporting from Brazil for this article.
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