November was not a banner month for freedom of speech in Canada. No, there hasn't been an outbreak of book-burning. Who Has Seen The Wind is still safe on the library shelf. But in the last month, there have been two unsettling conflicts over just how far the right to freedom of expression extends when it comes to the brave new world of the electronic frontier.
Yes, the Internet is rearing its ugly head again -- and no, Mr. Rock, it won't go away if you bury your head in the sand and pretend it's just a matter of wires and plugs under the aegis of Industry Canada. As more Canadians push their way into the global information bazaar, the thorny matter of how far one can go in posting inflammatory material becomes of growing importance to anyone with a modem and an opinion.
The first clouds on the free speech horizon were summoned by the curious case of the anti-Lucien Bouchard Website. The site, which reportedly compared the Gallic sovereigntist to Adolph Hitler and suggested that his death would be a great thing for Canadian patriots, had a short but eventful life. The story made the newswires, and even prompted a statement in the House of Commons condemning the sentiments that had been expressed.
But a few days later, the police, who had been called in to investigate the incident, grumpily issued a statement exonerating the creator of the site of any wrongdoing.
It's safe to assume he will think long and hard before expressing his views on controversial political issues in future.
Like the electronic medium itself, the issue of free speech becomes more ephemeral as the technology becomes more complex.
Take Ernst Zundel, the inveterate Holocaust denier, sound bite martyr for the Neo-Nazi movement in Canada, and a cross to bear for Canadian free speech activists for years. Zundel has recently come under fire for his adventures in the online world.
In this case, the trouble is that the Internet site in question isn't in Canada -- it's in sunny California, slightly outside the jurisdiction of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Which means it will be whatever political pressure can be exerted by the Canadian government on an American company, not the law, that will determine the fate of Zundel's website. And even if the ISP in California could be bullied into pulling the plug on Zundel, the site would doubtless reappear almost immediately on computers in the Netherlands, Australia, or Taiwan.
Will Canada send in the troops, dispatching Mounties to pull the plug on any Internet site which might violate Canadian law? Do we really want to be the electronic police force for the entire planet? The potential for an omelette facial in the global spotlight is enormous. Let's rethink this before we wind up in one of those typically Canadian do-gooder jams.
For those who would defend free speech in Canada -- whether it be crackpot faux history on the Internet or naughty pictures of naked people in corner stores -- the job has always been lonely, thankless, and unpopular. Who wants to carry a deranged Neo-Nazi on one's shoulders as a symbol of the cause, or march in favor of pornography?
For years, Canadian free speech activists have been engaged in tacit collusion on the matter, divvying up instances of censorship on an ideological basis. So we have liberals (as opposed to Liberals, but that's another story) going to the barricades for gay and lesbian bookstores whose wares have been seized at the border by hapless Revenue Canada drones, while those of a more right-wing persuasion lend moral and legal support to historians, academics, and sociologists whose views on race or gender earn the ire of the population at large. Never, or at least rarely, have the twain met.
But the Internet changes everything. Free speech activists, whatever their personal politics, are going to have to swallow their differences and fight on the same side. It's in their collective best interest. The technology of the Internet allows -- in fact, encourages -- shoestring activist organizations and basement political movements alike to hijack the medium, and compete with the big boys of conventional thought on a level playing field.
There's too much at stake to let the government get away with deciding what ideas can and cannot be expressed in either. In fact, the whole situation leaves one groping for an argument more profound and up to date than Voltaire's famous dictum: I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend till the death your right to say it. Perhaps the government can keep those bon mots in mind when considering regulation of the Internet just for the heck of it.