PARIS — The burst of machine-gun fire from the computer's sound card and the stark screen image of a masked man armed with a Kalashnikov, standing before a swastika, tells you that this is no ordinary Web site. By accident or by design, you have surfed into the "Charlemagne Hammer Skins" home page, a neo-Nazi skinhead swamp of bile and prejudice.
Click on the button marked "Access for Subhumans," and you bring up a photograph of Birkenau concentration camp in Poland and the threatening message: "You can be sure that we have a lot of one-way tickets to Auschwitz left."
The site is typical of a new and flourishing phenomenon - "cybernazis" using the World Wide Web to spread their views, protected from prosecution even in European countries where inciting racial hatred is a criminal offense.
"It used to be difficult for neo-Nazis to get their propaganda out," says Marc Knobel, a French researcher who monitors racism on the Internet. "They had to use specialized bookstores and tracts distributed from post office box numbers. Now things have really changed." And rather than having to rely on word of mouth, neo-Nazi groups in eastern Germany are using the Net to advertise the time and location of rallies and other events.
In Germany, France, and other European countries it is illegal to spread race hatred, and to defend "negationist" theories that deny the Holocaust happened. "But it is very difficult to go after" the people who post such material on the Web, says Mr. Knobel, due to practical problems and legal differences among countries.
Knobel came across the French Charlemagne Hammer Skins Web site, for example, through America Online last September. When he complained, AOL shut the site down immediately. But two days later, it reappeared on a Canadian-based server. In no European country are servers legally responsible for the material on sites that they host. In a test case in France, nine servers sued by a Jewish student group successfully argued in court that they merely transport information, like the postal service, and cannot be held responsible for its content.
But they are vulnerable to bad publicity, "and they are more sensitive to the issue now, more careful," says Knobel, as AOL's quick action last year shows.
But if neo-Nazis run into trouble finding host servers in Europe, they have only to get in touch with companies in the United States, where respect for the First Amendment means there are few limits to what can be put on the Web. At international forums to discuss possible controls on the Internet, US representatives have argued against regulation on free-speech grounds.
The technical and practical difficulties of keeping the Internet free of hate sites would also be enormous. Knobel has identified some 600 such sites, but says it is impossible to keep close track of them because they are constantly changing addresses.
With technical sophistication, neo-Nazis have found the Web a congenial and efficient vehicle. The Internet, wrote American neo-Nazi Milton Kleim in a 1995 pamphlet, "offers enormous possibilities, making it possible for the Aryan resistance movement to diffuse its message to unaware or ignorant people. It's the only mass media available to us that is still (at the present time) relatively free from censorship. We now have to take up a new arm, Internet, and learn to use it well and wisely."