Each year on January 27 the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Yet, even as we commemorate the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, where nearly 1 million Jews perished, Holocaust denial continues to spread like an epidemic across the internet – including on the San Francisco-based Internet Archive. The Archive describes itself as a "digital library…providing 'Universal Access to All Knowledge,'" but it also serves as an easy-to-access platform for the content of white supremacists, antisemites and Holocaust deniers. Searching the word "Holocaust" on the Internet Archive, for example, yields results with titles like "What Holocaust – 6 million my [expletive]", "A Holocaust Inquiry by Dr David Duke", and "The Jewish Holocaust Is A Jewish HollowHoax" – some of these appearing on the very first page of results.
Exactly one year ago, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) released a report detailing how the Internet Archive enables neo-Nazis and white supremacists to spread their messages of hate, incitement to violence and Holocaust denial by allowing users to post and then easily share such content. We hoped that exposing this rampant online hate, especially on a day of Holocaust remembrance, would lead to action. But, one year on, absolutely nothing has changed. The Internet Archive remains a powerful vehicle for spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories and the outlandish idea that the Holocaust never happened.
It is time to compel the Internet Archive to change. We call on Congress, particularly those Congressional leaders from the Bay Area, to take action to hold the Internet Archive accountable for its role in spreading antisemitic and racist hate, as well as Holocaust denial – as Congress has done with other major tech companies. This move would be especially welcome following the adoption of a historic UN resolution condemning Holocaust denial and distortion and calling on countries to take action to combat it.
Despite its lofty sounding mission, the Internet Archive, which receives both private and public funding, including from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation, does not function like an academic database, providing historical context for its content. Rather, it makes freely available everything from Nazi-era propaganda to the manifestos of mass killers who have inspired copycat attacks, text and videos from prominent neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, and handbooks for carrying out attacks against Jews and others (see a compilation of examples here). An email address is the only information required to post this content, which can be easily shared and is fodder for recruiting extremists to the cause of white supremacy.
The Internet Archive does have ways to alert its users about debunked content when it wants to – it announced in 2020 that it would annotate "false and misleading information" in its "Wayback Machine" and indicate whether an item had passed muster with a fact-checking organization. The findings of MEMRI's 2021 report were shared with the director of the Wayback Machine, Mark Graham, at his request. However, despite receiving clear evidence of the virulent and violent content being posted and shared, Graham responded simply by saying that there were "difficult ethical and other decisions to consider around running an online library". In other words, the Internet Archive would not take any steps on its own initiative to either annotate, flag or remove the flood of hateful content that it currently hosts.
This refusal to proactively address the problem of rampant misinformation and incitement on its platform leaves no choice but for elected officials to involve themselves – and as quickly as possible. Graham is correct when he states that these are complicated issues and there are considerations of free speech to balance when discussing online content. But Congress and NGOs have rightly demanded that tech giants like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter implement measures to prevent the spread of hate, misinformation and incitement to violence on their platforms. Certainly, the Internet Archive should not have free rein to spread such content without any context or disclaimer, while other tech companies have been forced to confront these issues and work to address them.
On this day, as the world remembers the tragedy of the Holocaust, members of Congress, and especially those representing the Internet Archive's home base in the Bay Area, must take up the important cause of holding this organization accountable for its content. This would certainly be a cause that would ignite both the fury and passion of the late Congressman Tom Lantos, were he still with us. Many tech companies likely recall the reverberations felt throughout Silicon Valley in 2007 when Congressman Lantos castigated Yahoo executives at a hearing over their role in the jailing of a Chinese journalist; he memorably accused them of being technological and financial giants but severely lacking in moral stature.
We encourage the Bay Area Congressional delegation to follow Congressman Lantos' example and show this kind of moral leadership: Ensure that the Internet Archive no longer escapes the scrutiny and accountability that have been applied to other tech companies. In a world that seems to careen ever closer to the edge of reality, we cannot allow the spread of Holocaust denial and online hate to go unchecked.
* Katrina Lantos Swett is President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice. She is a human rights professor at Tufts University and the former chair of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom.
Yigal Carmon is President and Founder of The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).