Neo-Nazi Web Issue Splits U.S., Germany

Germany and the United States are at loggerheads over neo-Nazi and other extreme right-wing Web sites based in the United States but accessible from Germany. Such sites are illegal in Germany but have First Amendment protection in the United States.

Talks at the “expert level” have been under way since late last year, a spokesman for German Interior Minister Otto Schilly said in Berlin.

The sites became a political issue in Germany last month when Spiegel Online, the Web edition of German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, claimed Schilly would resort to “hacker methods” to block access to the sites, which sell everything from copies of Hitler's “Mein Kampf,” a book banned in Germany, to SS insignia and other paraphernalia.

Spiegel Online, and later the newspaper Die Welt, said Schilly planned denial of service attacks against swastika-waving Americans and their Web sites. In a DoS attack, Die Welt explained, a site is bombarded with questions until the server is overloaded and can no longer answer, thereby making it unreachable by consumers.

The Ministry promptly denied the story, calling it “plain nonsense” to claim that it was considering hacker methods. But Schilly's spokesman said he would continue battling such sites.

“We're looking at technological means that might be used to stop Germans from buying or viewing Nazi artifacts or right-wing propaganda emanating from sites in the U.S.,” the spokesman said. “We're examining all possibilities but only those that are legal.”

Schilly's spokesman said it would take much work to find technological solutions that could block content from reaching German consumers. One example: Find out through logistics who in Germany is buying banned items. But that, too, has unexplored legal ramifications.

Several major sites already have pulled back on the sale of certain items.

EBay, for example, does not allow the sale of Nazi-related items to people in France, Germany, Austria and Italy. EBay also states on its site that “items that promote or glorify hatred, violence, or racial intolerance, or items that promote organizations [such as the KKK, Nazis, neo-Nazis, Skinheads, Aryan Nation] with such views, are never allowed on any eBay site.” agreed in 1999 to stop selling “Mein Kampf” to customers in Germany. And a French court last year ruled that Yahoo must filter Nazi and Ku Klux Klan merchandise from French customers.

Schilly considers the growth of right-wing extremism a serious problem, especially since the number of hate sites on the Web has doubled in the past year from 400 to 800.

But nobody is downplaying the problem's complexity. Even if authorities could shut down reception of a U.S. hate site in Germany, the site could morph into another one within hours.

Nor are neo-Nazis above using First Amendment protection to entice German right-wing Web sites to set up shop in the United States. The newsmagazine Focus reported last month that some Americans are doing just that.

Gary Lauck, identified by the magazine as an “American neo-Nazi,” allegedly has enticed German Web sites to operate from the United States by claiming such sites would likely not be shut down. Lauck, Focus said, spent four years in jail in Germany for spreading Nazi propaganda, something specifically forbidden by German law.

But the legal situation is far less clear on the Web. German states have the right to tell ISPs to shut down some Internet addresses, but that right has not been tested in court, and local authorities fear heavy fines if they lose.

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