The Globe & Mail
Tuesday, July 23, 1996
"The New Media", page C2

Electronic Frontier fights censorship on the Internet

- The group is both watchdog and educator -

by Derek Winkler, willy@io.org

On the weekend of July 12, about 50,000 people gathered at Mosport Park east of Toronto for a three-day concert of alternative rock dubbed the Eden musicfest.

Had you been there that weekend, you might have noticed a number of concert-goers and even some of the musicians sporting small removable tattoos of blue ribbons. If you had gone wandering through the wall of sound and the overheated crowd of pierced, painted, barely clothed fans you might have eventually come across a cool white tent, also decorated in blue ribbons.

Inside that tent, flanked by electric guitar demonstrations and virtual reality video games, you would have found a modest booth staffed by volunteers eager to tell you about the legal aspects of Canada's telecommunication networks.

The booth belonged to Kitchener, Ont.-based Electronic Frontier Canada (EFC), and the volunteers were there to pass on a message about free speech on the Internet to the assembled masses, and blue ribbon tattoos of course, a recently adopted symbol of the struggle against Internet censorship.

It may seem strange for a civil liberties group founded by computer science professors to have a presence at one of the year's biggest rock festivals, but the EFC booth at Eden was the sign of a powerful and symbolic convergence of interests.

"To me it makes perfect sense", EFC president David Jones says. "People who are interested in alternative music, stuff that's not mainstream, are the people who are affected most by talk about stifling freedom of expression, and who most appreciate the kind of open community the Internet is."


Founded in January, 1994, by Dr. Jones, a professor of computer science at McMaster University in Hamilton, and Jeffrey Shallit, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo, Electronic Frontier Canada is dedicated to protecting the principles of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in new media such at the Internet.

The organization functions as both a watchdog and an educator, constantly scanning the digital horizon for infringements of civil liberties in an environment so new and hazy, no one is exactly sure yet what is or is not allowed.

"I think there's been a lot of really ill-informed commentary", Dr. Shallit says, "but it is getting better. When the people who are growing up today with computers as second nature come to be legislators, they will know what to do, but for now we've got this 15- to 20-year period that's dangerous, when a lot of bad decisions could be made. We've just got to get over that hump."

"For the most part, we don't need new laws to deal with what most people seem to be concerned about on the Internet", Dr. Jones says. "All that needs to be done is educate the people that existing laws apply, and educate law enforcement about how to deal with those familiar issues in this new context."

EFC is very much a product of its medium. With only about 150 members spread across such a vast country, the only way to keep in touch is to make effective use of the tools they have joined forces to defend.

The organization functions almost entirely through its Web site ( http://www.efc.ca ) and its electronic mailing lists. Drs. Jones and Shallit did not even meet face-to-face until several months after EFC was formed.

The group is not only small and scattered, it is terminally underfunded, operating solely on membership fees and donations, with no government support or corporate sponsors. Even though it limits their scope of operations, the EFC board is loath to get too deep into anyone else's pocket.

"Right now we speak as independent scholars", Dr. Shallit says. "We say what we think is best. If we start taking money from Rogers Cable or somebody, there's going to be serious questions about whether we're serving their interests or our own. Right now it's our own, and we intend to keep it that way."

Hence the booth at the Eden musicfest. Part of the proceeds from the weekend will go to EFC, a sign of recognition by the concert's promoters of the importance of the digital cause.

Despite the financial constraints, EFC has been a consistent and effective voice for freedom of speech and the right to privacy in Canadian computerized communication.

For example, earlier this month, one of Canada's largest Internet service providers, Istar Internet Inc. of Ottawa, stopped carrying 35 Usenet newsgroups, some of whose controversial contents may be illegal under Canadian law. When a confidential memo stating that it would be official company policy to keep the list of disabled newsgroups a secret from Istar's customers was leaked to EFC, the group immediately posted it on their Web site for all the world to see.

When the mainstream press picked up the story shortly thereafter, EFC posted those articles on the site as well. Many of them contained quotes from Dr. Jones, acting in his capacity as Canada's ranking talking head on Internet civil liberties. Within a week, an action Istar had hoped to keep in the shadows had been pulled directly into a media spotlight.

The Istar case spotlights another key concern of EFC.

"There's a big question of how legally liable Internet service providers [ISPs] are for the actions of their customers", Dr. Jones says. "For Canada Post or Bell Canada, there's clear relief from liability. If you call me and harass me, you've done something wrong, but I can't sue Bell Canada. It's not clear what the status of ISPs is.

That relief from liability enjoyed by Bell Canada and Canada Post stems from their status as common carriers, meaning they are only responsible for getting messages from A to B, not for the contents of those messages. Common carrier status for Internet service providers is a central plank of EFC's platform. Without that status, the present uncertainty may lead to a chilling effect at ISPs, as it did at Istar.

"A lot of providers might anticipate that there will be problems", says Richard Rosenberg, EFC vice-president and a computer science professor at the University of British Columbia, "and without even testing the legal waters, they might act to either cut people off or cut off access to various things, just to make sure they aren't legally responsible. That's a real concern."

The EFC Web site contains an extensive collection of legal information culled from past and continuing cases such as Istar. In fact, the Web site is a massive compendium of press clippings, news releases, university computer networks' acceptable use policies, and pointers to still more resources.

It's all there so Canadians on either side of a legal complaint can orient themselves according to what's gone before. And if you're really in trouble, the group keeps in touch with a loose network of sympathetic lawyers.

"EFC has been an excellent resource", says Jeffrey Manishen a criminal lawyer with the Hamilton firm of Ross & McBride. Mr. Manishen is currently before the court in Chatham, Ont., defending a person charged with possession for the purposes of distribution of child pornography, in the form of CD-ROMs full of pictures allegedly downloaded from computer bulletin boards.

"Professor Jones offered to use EFC to help me out as much as possible by linking me up with other lawyers who've been defending these sorts of cases", Mr. Manishen says. "To know what current developments have been happening on constitutional issues, on sentencing issues, simply on what's happening where, that's been helpful."


While leaping to the defence of alleged child pornography or hate propaganda is not exactly a pleasant duty, Dr. Jones is quick to point out that there are underlying principles of justice that deserve attention in these early days of electronic law.

"If someone is doing something wrong, they should be convicted", Dr. Jones says, "but along the way we should find out whether the procedures for investigating these complaints are appropriate. It's important to pay attention to those details because right now is when the first cases are occurring."

"If we let inappropriate methods become standard practice, then the argument will be that they've been doing it for years and no one's complained before."

In the United States, members of EFC's U.S. forerunner, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are celebrating last month's downfall of the Communications Decency Act, a hugely vague piece of legislation that sought to imposed undefined "community decency standards" on the Internet. In the finest American tradition, this threat to free speech was answered by a stirring call to arms, the rallying of a great anti-CDA coalition, and a mighty court battle, followed by the sweet taste of victory when a three-judge panel in Pennsylvania found the act to be unconstitutional.

It doesn't happen that way in Canada.

"In Canada it's possible to erode what people feel is free speech gradually, in a way which doesn't have this dramatic effect of rallying people", Dr. Rosenberg says. "Unfortunately, we don't have that strong tradition of rallying in Canada. This is what we hope EFC will do."

But just because there's nothing to rally around doesn't mean there's nothing to worry about. Creeping, incremental self-censorship is just as dangerous as sweeping comments from on high, and harder to fight.

"Unlike our American neighbours", Dr. Jones said, "we haven't had any high-profile controversies that have caught the public interest. Instead there are smaller more isolated incidents that may have a cumulative effect. All that means is that we have to be vigilant."


Copyright © 1997 by The Globe & Mail. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.