- If you didn't put it there yourself, finding your name, home address, and telephone number on a Yahoo bulletin board would be pretty uncomfortable. But when someone calls you an "Islamic terrorist" and posts your information, it could become downright dangerous. That's what happened online to Hussein Ibish and dozens of others this week.
"Personally, I find it frightening and appalling," says Ibish, the director of communications and media for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a national organisation. His name and those of dozens of other perceived Arab-Americans were culled from the internet and posted to a Yahoo message board under the message heading "Islamic Terror Groups in the US."
Ibish notified Yahoo, which immediately removed the posting.
In the wake of the recent week's terrorist strikes against the United States, many websites and message boards have become peppered with both anti-Islamic and anti-American messages.
But internet companies in these touchy times generally don't want their networks to be used as soapboxes for hate speech. Perhaps it's no wonder these firms are taking swift action against such rhetoric. Major providers are editing message boards, turning off customer websites, and removing links from search engine results.
In doing so, they walk a tricky line. On the one hand there is intense public pressure to suppress hate speech, but if they go too far these private businesses could end up trampling on the US Constitution's guarantee of free speech, says Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
But who decides what should be censored or left alone? In cyberspace, the answer to that question is often decided by businesses, not the government.
And lately, companies like AOL and Yahoo have had their hands full trying to keep up with the blizzard of hateful and angry postings to their websites, bulletin boards, and chat rooms.
A review of websites no longer active, but accessible through Google.com's cached website service, reveals what many providers deem inappropriate.
For example, Terra Lycos shut down sites located on the free webhosting service Tripod that were soliciting money to fund an Islamic jihad, or holy war.
Before it was shut down, one Tripod-based website provided video and audio clips of Osama bin Laden proclaiming a holy war against the United States. The site linked to Pakistani banks for donations to help fund the effort. Bin Laden is widely thought to be responsible for masterminding the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
Other Tripod sites gave tips to those fighting a jihad regarding killing of innocent people, such as: "In summary, Muslims do not have to stop an attack on Mushrikeen, [those who have strayed] if non-fighting women and children are present. But, Muslims should avoid the killing of children and non-fighting women, and should not aim at them."
On the other side of the coin, Geocities removed a site that depicted a cartoon of an Arab being assaulted by the Empire State Building. Still other websites removed by their hosts relate to an Islamic jihad, with no reference to the United States.
The proliferation of hate sites and chat rooms filled with toxic comments has caused internet companies to more closely inspect the material posted in public areas.
For example, an AOL chat room where anti-Arab comments have become commonplace is now frequently visited by an AOL "host" who reminded chatters, "racist and hate speech is not allowed on AOL. Please be a friendlier chatter."
CNN.com has reacted to hate postings on its message boards by more than doubling the number of editors who read and screen its message boards. CNN.com also updated its "Rules of Conduct" for posting messages a week after the attacks. Since September 11, the CNN.com "America Under Attack" message board has gained 45,000 postings, according to Elizabeth Barry, CNN.com spokesperson.
The attacks on New York and Washington have clearly ushered in a new era of incivility on the web, but the challenge of taming offensive material isn't a new problem for ISPs (internet service providers) and those who host public message sites.
They have learned that they can deal with flame wars and hatemongers quite directly because, contrary to what many might think, there is no absolute right to free speech on the internet.
Most of the internet space the public uses is owned by private companies, which have a great deal of power to censor material they deem inappropriate.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution protects hate speech from being prohibited by the government, but it does not preclude private companies from restricting what gets posted on their equipment. Firms may offer public forums in websites, but they're free to restrict the speech that occurs on the sites, says Jeffrey M Shaman, a law professor at DePaul University College and former president of the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Terra Lycos, for example, views itself as an electronic media company, not a public forum. It censors its customers' websites and their participation on Lycos message boards if communication is illegal or "hateful." It's a business issue, not strictly a free speech issue, to the company.
AOL takes a similar view.
"In these very sensitive times we are looking closely at the type of content on our network," says Andrew Weinstein, an AOL spokesperson. Most "terms of service" policies restrict hateful speech or advocating violence. AOL warns its problem users to abide by policy, or terminates their service.
Some companies go further than chat, websites, and message boards. AltaVista, Lycos, and MSN have gone so far as removing potentially offensive search results from their directory and listings. That's in line with similar policies that restrict links to child pornography and spam sites.
"As a general principal, we do not remove or filter search results," says Terra Lycos' Geoff Strawbridge. "But if sites are brought to our attention that do not meet our community standards, they're gone."
Google takes a different approach.
"We do not manually remove content from our search results," says David Krane, a Google spokesperson. That includes sites some people find objectionable, inappropriate, or offensive, he says.
Earthlink tolerates general hate speech on websites that it hosts. But when hate speech postings target specific individuals, it is not acceptable and the site is removed.
"We are not monitoring, but if it's brought to our attention we'll review it," says Dan Greenfield, Earthlink's vice president of corporate communications.