Canadian Press
Saturday, June 8, 1996

Policing Internet is impractical and undesirable, rights groups charge

by Gloria Galloway

TORONTO (CP) -- The Internet is a window to a world of filth, violence, and pornography, and its popularity is growing exponentially each year.

But while some Canadians want to restrict traffic cruising the information highway, others argue to do so would be both impractical and undesirable.

"We don't need special laws" to govern the Internet, says David Jones, a Hamilton university professor and president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a public interest group monitoring Canadian rights in cyberspace.

"A picture of a naked woman with a gun to her head is considered obscenity's illegal in print and it's illegal on the Internet."

Similar controls, he said, govern hate material -- a Winnipeg teen known as Inbred Jed was charged earlier this year with electronically promoting violence against gays.

Even so, the Canadian government has occasionally indicated an interest in expanding its grip on the Net.

One of the more recent attempts ended a year ago when the Canadian Information Highway Advisory Council admitted it could come to no clear consensus about what should be banned and how to ban it.

"This technology is so new", says Sean Kirby, press secretary to federal Science Minister Jon Gerrard.

"It's something that's always being talked about and always being looked at and debated but ... there's no prevailing sense about what ought to be done."

And, says Kirby, it's very difficult to police.

Witness the case of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel of Toronto. Knowing the information he disseminates could bring hate charges here in Canada, he established a web site in California.

When the German government tried to block Zundel's writings, which are banned under German law, Net users around the world copied his material to their home pages in protest.

But even Zundel believes in limits. On his own page he recently blasted "vulgar, smutty, uncouth web sites" and urged his fellow "champions of white rights" to keep "disgusting images" off the Net.

Like Zundel, U.S. politicians seem more concerned about the F word than hate material. In February, they passed the Communications Decency Act which limits Internet postings to the sorts of things broadcast on network television.

Several groups challenged the legislation on constitutional grounds and the law is not being enforced while the protest works its way through the courts.

In the meantime, says Jones, Canadian officials are likely watching the U.S. wranglings with keen interest "and if the U.S. government finds (the act) is constitutional, I think we can expect something similar north of the border."

Daniel Weitzner of Washington, whose Centre for Democracy and Technology is among those challenging the U.S. law, says it could effectively gag all but the most banal of material.

"How are Internet users going to function on a global network that is run by the laws of over 100 different countries?" he asks.

"When the U.S. decides to censor indecent material and China tries to censor anti-communist material and Singapore tries to censor material that's threatening to the government of Singapore, we pretty soon end up with a least-common-denominator network where all we have is math problems."

Unlike radio or television where listeners and viewers can be inadvertently exposed to material they find offensive, Internet users choose the information they want to access, says Weitzner.

And unless Net users are permitted to police themselves, "we could have every single country trying to impose its own standards and we'll end up, I think effectively shutting the Internet down."

Copyright © 1996 by Canadian Press. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.