Parents who have been wondering how to protect their children from neo-Nazi Internet propaganda received a new and powerful tool on Wednesday.
The Anti-Defamation League launched HateFilter software that blocks access to Web sites promoting bigotry and anti-Semitism.
The software, which can be downloaded at www.adl.org, was developed in response to thousands of pleas from parents.
Some 10 ADL members worked for nearly a year developing the filter, which cost the organization about $100,000. About 200 sites have been blocked by the debut version of the software.
"We were getting e-mails from all over the country, from people forwarding us materials they'd found and saying, `What can we do about this?'" said Barbara Bergen, ADL's regional director in San Francisco.
"This medium is an absolute bonanza for bigots, who have found a new and far easier means of distributing their material."
With increasingly sophisticated and easy-to-use software, hate groups can easily mount "online messages presented in full-color animation with music and video, all designed to mask the hideous face of hate," said Howard P. Berkowitz, ADL national chairman.
Making matters more difficult for parents, hate sites are often camouflaged. With names like the National Alliance and the Institute for Historical Review, it's not always evident that a site will contain hate speech.
Children doing research for school papers frequently stumble across such sites, Bergen said.
"If you punch the word `Holocaust' into an Internet search engine, you're going to get back plenty of sites that say `revisionist,'" she said. "Kids don't necessarily know that Holocaust revisionism is really anti-Semitism; they might think this is how to get the real, up-to-date stuff."
Around one year ago, ADL decided to put the resources of its research department together with blocking software.
To do so, it contacted The Learning Company, a software developer based in Cambridge, Mass. The Learning Company's Cyber Patrol, which blocks adult and violent sites, was the prototype for HateFilter.
But HateFilter goes one step further than Cyber Patrol, said Bergen. "Instead of just eliminating the subject, it redirects kids to places where they can get information."
The filter works by accessing a pre-existing database of Web pages that ADL has deemed "hate sites." Bergen defines a hate site as "anything that sends a message that any one group is less than, subhuman, or not as worthy of inhabiting the planet as everyone else."
When a site is blocked, users are offered a link to a page of the ADL Web site that contains information on hate groups, along with research reports. From there, parents can use a password to unblock a hate site if they wish to view and discuss it with their children.
The redirecting element makes HateFilter unique among blocking devices. "We're thinking of it as a crossing guard," said Bergen.
HateFilter provides various other options that parents might find useful. In addition to choosing the hours they want sites blocked, they can use the software to set total hours of Internet access for individuals — a function that might not curry much favor with chat-room-addicted teens.
Since new sites appear frequently and existing sites may go underground, ADL researchers will constantly update the filter. Users pay nothing for the first seven days, but are then asked to subscribe at the rate of $29.95 for the first three months and $29.95 annually thereafter.
Though it may be impossible to police the entire Internet all of the time, Bergen is confident that HateFilter will block almost all the sites that parents would find objectionable.
"ADL is recognized for its expertise in tracking extremists," she said. "So what better than to offer that expertise to parents for their children's benefit?"