The Costco Connection
May/June 1997
pages 14,15


Should governments try to censor the Internet?

The Internet is making it possible for individuals, groups, and businesses around the world to access information and communicate with unprecedented ease and speed. But the free flow of information across boundaries also has a downside. The Net has become home to purveyors of hate literature, pornography, and child sex rings. Some people think that is the price of freedom of expression; others believe limits are necessary. What do you think?

Express your own view.


Jeffrey Shallit,
Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo, and co-founder of Electronic Frontier Canada


Rubin Friedman,
Director of Government Relations, B'nai B'rith Canada

Well, we could follow the lead of countries such as China and force all Internet users to register with the police or face imprisonment. We could adopt Singapore's approach and have the government search through everyone's e-mail to determine who has downloaded sexually explicit material. Or, like Malaysia, we could consider ending academic scholarships for students who criticize the government online.

But I doubt most Canadians would stand for such intrusion into their personal lives. After all, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees every Canadian the fundamental freedom of "thought, belief, opinions, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication".

This is not to say that existing laws don't apply to the Internet -- they do. Expression over the Internet is no different from any form of expression: there are legal limits. For example, a death threat uttered over the Internet is not protected simply because it is issued electronically, as a Winnipeg Internet user learned in March 1996. There has already been a successful libel suit for statements made over the Internet. Since existing laws already apply, however, no new restrictions on Canadians' right to speak electronically are required.

Some organizations, such as B'nai B'rith Canada, are alarmed about the amount of hate propaganda available on the Internet -- and rightly so. The Internet is simply a reflection of society, and racism and anti-Semitism have historically been a serious stain on Canada's character. But censorship is not the answer.

First, censorship isn't feasible. Much hate propaganda originates from the United States, and it is simply not possible for Canadian law to regulate what is done on American computers. When Canadians are threatened, they can simply move their content to another country, where it is still freely accessible to all Canadians.

Second, prosecution for hate propaganda simple gives free publicity to the crackpots that create it. Would Ernst Zundel be a household name if he hadn't been prosecuted?

Third, every attempt at censorship is an implicit admission of defeat. When you censor someone, you are essentially saying, "Your speech is too powerful for me to counter with my own arguments." But as John Milton remarked in 1644, "Who ever knew Truth put to worse, in a free and open encounter?" The answer to bad speech is more speech - good speech that educates and informs - not censorship.

This question is framed in a contentious way. We should be asking if Canada should be trying to enforce the laws it currently applies to other media, to the Internet.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibits "the advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence". The International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, ratified by Canada in 1970, calls upon states to pass laws against "the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred.

Canada has reflected these values in its own laws. The Canadian Criminal Code criminalizes the promotion of genocide and the public promotion of hatred against an identifiable group. Section 320 allows a judge to order the seizure of hate propaganda. This law was used to prosecute James Keegstra, who was teaching his history class that Jews were evil. The Supreme Court of Canada upheld the conviction and ruled 9-0 that the law was constitutional.

Would we be prepared not to prosecute Keegstra for doing exactly the same thing on the Internet that he did in class?

Our Human Rights Commission has the mandate to stop hate propaganda over the telephone and has shut down hate messages in Vancouver and Toronto. Are we saying our laws should not apply to the same messages on the Internet?

The real issue is not whether Canada should enforce its laws, but the extent to which Canada can enforce its laws on the Internet. There are more than 40 million users of the Internet worldwide and no central control. Who is liable for hate messages sent or retrieved from foreign sources? The service provider, the user, and the originator may all be liable, but only those located in Canada could come under Canadian jurisdiction.

Some attempt could be made to screen out sites from abroad. Software exists for helping parents screen what their children can access. But it is not possible to guarantee that some pathway cannot be found to the forbidden address. When Ernst Zundel's site was banned from German Internet providers, mirror sites with the same content but different addresses were created.

Canada has an obligation to enforce its laws as far as it is able. This will likely mean applying Canada's laws to clear-cut cases and promoting international cooperation on a common approach to hate propaganda, harassment, and pornography. Canada should apply its laws wherever it can to material communicated in Canada.

Virtual Debate:
Join Jeffrey Shallit for a live chat on this topic at 1 pm (PDT) on Tuesday, June 10. Just click on "chat" at:


Q: Should governments try to censor the Internet?

People are getting away with putting things on the Internet that they wouldn't get away with if it was a magazine. It should be against the law to have pornography anywhere it is accessible to children.

-- Johan Carigan, Saint-Hubert, PQ

I don't think the government has any business censoring the Internet unless there is a legal ramification. In that case they should shut down the source.

-- Ron Hala, Saskatoon, SK

They shouldn't censor everything, but they should make it in a way so that kids cannot get to it unless they have a certain code to get in.

-- John Terry, Woodbridge, ON

Having pornography on the Internet isn't going to force people to go to those sites.

-- Nathalie St-Pierre, Greenfield Park, PQ

It's too easy for young children to access the wrong information. It's worth censoring as long as it's not too controlled by the government and parents are allowed to have a say in what should be censored.

-- Elizabeth Jurgens, Abbotsford, BC

The net should be a place of free expression. I feel I can educate my children about the net in the same way I have worked to make them street smart.

-- Phil Foreman, Red Deer, AB

Express your own view.

Opinions expressed are those of the individuals or organizations represented and are presented to foster discussion. Costco and The Costco Connection take no position on any Debate topic.

Copyright © 1997 by The Costco Connection. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.