[The Netizen] 29 July 1996

The Great White North
Special Report

by Declan McCullagh
Washington, DC, 28 July


[A] Holocaust revisionist Web site in Canada has sparked a raging political firestorm that recently spread to the British Columbia attorney general ministry, which has decreed that the Net should be regulated.

The heat began rising for Marc Lemire, a 20-year-old Toronto resident, when Pathway Communications, an Internet service provider, unceremoniously booted his ``Freedom Site'' on 28 June. ``It's evolving into a big censorship debate in British Columbia. Censorship is coming to a head in Canada,'' Lemire said.

After losing his Pathway account, Lemire shifted operations 2,500 miles west to FTCnet, a small ISP in rural British Columbia. FTCnet quickly came under siege from irate community activists, the publisher of the local Oliver Chronicle newspaper, and the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which fired off an angry note to the owner of the company, Bernard Klatt.

[OH, CANADA]

The Wiesenthal letter said: ``Your Internet service has become the site for a number of groups that specialize in racial and religious hate material... You are not obligated to carry subscribers who involved the provider in matters such as race hatred...''

Klatt refused to bow to pressure and said he would not censor his users. ``Freedoms are always attacked at the fringes since they're hardest to defend. If we're going to keep constricting the circle of free speech you're going to have to be middle of the road or be unacceptable,'' Klatt said.

Next, the provincial authorities stepped in with a plan to seize control of British Columbia cyberspace, further boosting the temperature of this flamefest. Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh promised to ``look into it to see if there was some way to regulate [the Net] or whether it was feasible,'' ministry spokesman Brent Thompson says.

``[Dosanjh] has asked and our various officials are responding to his request. At this stage I don't know anything.... Another route would be through the federal criminal code. The police could investigate under criminal provisions of the federal criminal code,'' Thompson said.

When asked if Canadians enjoy the right to free speech, Thompson refused to answer: ``That's beyond my expertise as a humble civil servant. I couldn't speculate on that.''

This isn't the first time Canadian authorities have moved to regulate the Net. As early as December 1994, a Canadian Human Rights Commission staffer posted to Usenet asking ``what measures could be considered to control the use of the Net.''

It's predictable, said David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada. ``Underlying all these efforts is a significant level of ignorance. There's no discussion of specifics. Nobody has identified a Web page that's illegal. There's just guilt by association. That's just enough to inflame people.''

Is Lemire's Web site illegal? ``No. Absolutely, positively not. There are pictures of Nazis. So what? There are lists of white supremacist or Holocaust-denial groups. So what? Lists of PO box numbers aren't illegal in this country,'' Jones said.

Jones has a point. For all this Net-scaremongering and political cyberposturing, the ``Freedom Site'' would be legal if printed out and distributed on a Toronto street corner. So why the fuss?

According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which regularly slams the Net as a vehicle for hate speech, it's not ``an issue of free speech,'' but ``a regulation of hate propaganda.''

Yet that ignores the underlying problem - which is not the speech itself, but the divisive and hurtful beliefs of the speakers. By muzzling the Holocaust revisionists and driving them and their neo-Nazi allies underground, the Wiesenthalers would make it harder to track and expose them.

Far better to keep the white supremacists and their publications publicly available for criticism and critique - shining a bright light on them as the Nizkor Project does - than to permit the hate to fester in darkness.

Perhaps the Holocaust may suffer momentarily from having its legacy debased online, but by exposing the activities of white supremacists and of human-rights abusers around the globe, the Net can help make sure that it never, ever happens again.

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What is the proper response to hate speech on the Net?
Let's talk tough, in Threads.

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