The Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, September 17, 1997

Judge urges curbs on Net excesses

Sopinka says global effort needed to fight hate, porn

by Carrie Buchanan

EDMONTON -- Cyberspace needs new laws and international enforcement to curb pornography, hate literature and other abuses, says a Supreme Court justice.

"The information age has brought us a wonderful instrument which enables us to vastly expand our knowledge and comprehension of the world. It is not, however, an unmixed blessing", Mr. Justice John Sopinka told an ethics conference in Edmonton.

"The result of this information explosion is that people have overdosed on free speech."

He said enforcement agencies in different countries are scouring the books to see whether existing laws can curb the excesses. But it seems unlikely, he added, that individual countries can do the job alone.

"The answer appears to be international co-operation", he said. Agreements like those already in place for law enforcement and custody orders are needed, he told the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws on Monday.

About 200 delegates from across North America are attending the conference, which includes sessions on ethics, campaign finance and reform, elections, freedom of information and registration of lobbyists.

More and more offensive material is being circulated on the Internet, Judge Sopinka warned. He referred to a 90-minute video collection of Internet pornography shown at a conference of Canadian police chiefs last year. It was so upsetting that 175 chiefs left the room.

"One of the chiefs was quoted as saying that 'everything on the Internet is becoming bigger, better, badder, uglier, stinkier, nastier, more violent, more vile, more disgusting'", Judge Sopinka said.

But don't bet on politicians acting quickly on legislating the Internet, Judge Sopinka warned. "I'm not optimistic as to how quickly Parliament or the legislatures will move on it. It's not a big vote-getter."

It's also extremely difficult to come up with legislation that removes offensive material without restricting the right of free speech, he said.

For example, whom should police hold responsible in cases where the author is anonymous?

And what happens when the laws of one country are more strict than those of the country where the material originated?

It's possible for people to be anonymous in cyberspace by sending a messages through a so-called "remailer", which strips away details about where the message came from.

"An anonymous speaker may also indulge in the worst abuses of free speech, such as child pornography and hate propaganda, or other crimes such as extortion, stalking, threats or harassment, with perfect impunity", Judge Sopinka said.

One option is to make anonymous remailers keep records that would be available to the courts, he suggested.

Then there's the problem of legal jurisdiction. Much of the obscene material on the Internet comes from the United States. But Canada's Criminal Code says no person can be convicted for an offence committed outside the country, Judge Sopinka noted.

In some cases, the burden is falling on the Internet service provider. For example, in 1995, a German court ruling forced CompuServe, a global service provider, to shut down 200 sex-related news groups because they violated German obscenity law.

"Since the firm had no technical way to restrict Internet content only in Germany, it was obliged to impose the same restrictions on all of its four million world-wide subscribers", Judge Sopinka noted.

"Surely this cannot be the solution, since it would have the effect of forcing Internet service providers to block all sites unless they conformed to the stricted law worldwide, in defiance of the rights of different societies to determine the worth of certain forms of speech for themselves."

In another case, the German phone system cut off access to all computers linked to online server Web Communications, fearing prosecution under anti-Nazi laws, when Web rented space to Ernst Zundel, a Toronto-based neo-Nazi.

Free-speech advocates quickly duplicated Zundel's web pages, thwarting the German move.

Judge Sopinka was emphatic that new laws and international agreements must not prevent reasonable freedom of speech or undermine privacy.

"As anonymity and encryption are controlled and reduced in order that domestic laws may be enforced in the on-line world, individual privacy and free speech are threatened", he said.

He said he hopes Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms will be sufficient to protect free speech.

But he's concerned that the Charter doesn't protect against individuals invading a person's privacy, such as with "sniffers" -- programs that monitor passing messages and save credit card numbers, passwords and other confidential information.

Balancing the rights of free speech and personal privacy against the need to restrict offensive and defamatory material might mean, on occasion, that abuses are not completely controlled, Judge Sopinka said.

"While this is to be regretted, it is the price we pay for the right to enjoy freedom of speech, and the price we pay for the many benefits that we derive and will continue to derive from this powerful new medium."


Copyright © 1997 by Southam News. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.