The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Web of Hate

Canadian Business, volume 69, no. 5 [Special Technology issue] (Spring 1996): 12.

Web of Hate

By fighting Nazis on the Net, is Ken McVay aiding their cause?
By Rebecca Carpenter

Ken McVay's obsession started four years ago. The former convenience store manager had seen his computer business collapse and was wondering what to do with his UNIX system. Browsing through a newsgroup, he came across a piece of historical revisionism of an ilk that is now widespread in certain newsgroups and on the World Wide Web but was still surprising to find in 1992--"really blatant anti-Semitism," he says.

McVay, who isn't Jewish and claims to be apolitical--he hasn't voted in 23 years--began to spend his spare time tracking down and refuting the claims of hatemongers and those denying on the Internet that the Holocaust had happened. His project, named Nizkor (Hebrew for "we will remember"), existed mainly in newsgroups until May 1995, when it went on the Web. The special technology of the Web allows McVay to link his documents to a number of racist and anti-Semitic sites. The 114,000 pages of Nizkor, which sits on the hard drive of McVay's computer in Campbell River, BC, is the largest on-line collection of evidence on the Holocaust.

Nizkor's pages had been steadily increasing until January 1996, when the Simon Wiesenthal Center, headquartered in Los Angeles, asked Internet providers in Canada and the US to deny Web access to hate groups. When the racists lurked in newsgroups, their message lacked appeal because, according to the Wiesenthal Center's Rabbi Abraham Cooper, "You could judge: this person is a fool, or worse." But the Web, because of its profoundly democratic nature, is a great equalizer of ideas: bad ideas now look as pretty as good ones. "The Flat Earth Society can do as nice a job [in designing its Web page] as Carl Sagan," says Cooper.

The debate over how best to fight racism on the Net is, in part, a debate on what the Net has become. Cooper believes it is now a major communications vehicle and that providers should therefore be governed by the "unwritten rules of engagement" that traditional media, such as newspapers and television, follow. McVay, on the other hand, argues that providers are far more similar to common carriers, such as the telephone, than to publishers or broadcasters. "They're just moving information," he says. The first 10,000 miles go through the telephone system; [it's only] the last quarter inch that's on the screen."

McVay now devotes all of his time to Nizkor. He earns $1,200 a month from speaking engagements and through public support, including that of local Jewish groups. His ancient computer was recently upgraded, thanks to a donation from a Christian businessman.

McVay worries that the Wiesenthal Center's request will make government intervention more likely. "I suspect I have the largest on-line collection of hate literature," he says. If hate speech is yanked off the Web, his pages might have to go too. After all, fighting Nazis on the Net is what McVay wants to do with the rest of his life.

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