Alberta Report / Western Report
vol.23, no.39, p.31
Monday, September 2, 1996

The Internet's Red Light District

An Edmonton service which removed child porn and bestiality could be admitting liability for everything it does carry

by Michael Jenkinson

Kelly Shubert says he is tired of being labelled a censor, although it seems to have helped his business. The systems manager at Internet Connect Inc. in Edmonton has been wearing the unfortunate "censor" designation ever since a local newspaper branded his company as such in a headline after Mr. Shubert pulled 15 USENET newsgroups (categorized articles and pictures) last month from the company's Internet feed. "We got a call from the Canadian branch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation", he says. "We've been called Big Brother." But just two people cancelled their accounts, while the company gained "a lot" of new subscribers in the ensuing publicity. The market, it seems, can tell the difference between censorship and civic responsibility.

The 15 cancelled newsgroups catered mainly to digital child pornography and bestiality, possession of which is illegal in Canada, whether in digital or printed form. Internet Connect decided to pull the newsgroups after police executed a search warrant at the company in an ongoing child pornography investigation. "The police showed me pictures of what was in those groups", he says. "We broached the subject of what we were legally responsible for. They told us it was a grey area, but to be on the safe side we should remove anything that is blatantly illegal."

University of British Columbia computer science professor Richard Rosenberg says the grey area stems from whether Internet providers should be legally considered "publishers" and therefore responsible for the content that people pull up on their computer screens, or "carriers" like telephone companies, which are not legally liable for what is carried over telephone lines.

Mr. Shubert thinks Net providers are the latter, pointing out that it is physically impossible, not to mention often illegal, to comb through every piece of private e-mail and public USENET news that passes through his system every day. Prof. Rosenberg says any time an Internet company pulls a newsgroup for reasons of content, it is acting as the former, and ironically, could be exacerbating its legal liability.

However that question is eventually resolved, Mr. Shubert says what he did was prudent, not censorship. "I haven't told the public what they can and cannot see, just what we will and will not sell", he says. Indeed, in the Internet marketplace, hardly any two providers offer exactly the same line-up of newsgroups. Internet Connect still carries more than 22,000, while the Internet Centre in Edmonton (formerly CCINet) offers its subscribers 10,000. OA Internet Inc. carries just 7,000. "I carry more newsgroups than them and we're censoring?" wonders Mr. Shubert.

Prof. Rosenberg says there are a number of factors at work in determining which newsgroups a particular Internet provider carries. Some companies have smaller computers and do not have the disk space to store messages for 20,000 groups, while others simply do not want to be known as the Internet provider with most vile virtual porn in town.

And while there is undoubtedly more than a fair bit of pornography on the Internet, some of it illegal and some of it simply offensive, Edmonton police detective Dave Johnston, who investigates technological crimes, says there is no need for a "crackdown" on the Internet. "I think the with the laws that currently exist in Canada, we can effectively deal with these types of occurrences," he says. "Getting rid of child pornography is important. But you can't throw out the baby with the bathwater."

Copyright © 1996 by United Western Communications Limited. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.