When the German government launched an offensive against Internet providers last year, its aim was to block Canadian-produced neo-Nazi propaganda.
The offensive failed, sabotaged by guardians of Internet free speech who created dozens of replica websites throughout the world.
This, and other failed attempts at censorship in cyberspace, were on the mind of Supreme court Justice John Sopinka on Tuesday when he urged tighter control of the darker side of the Internet -- the hate propaganda, child pornography, libel, and other material that in the celestial world are more easily regulated.
But whether Sopinka likes it or not, Internet specialists say, cyberspace cannot be censored. Technology can't do it and international treaties aimed at blocking certain types of Internet traffic will never be achieved.
"It's pure fantasy to suggest censorship is possible", said David Jones, a computer scientist at McMaster University and a leading anti-censorship advocate. "Government can't control the flow of information on the Internet. If it tries, as the Germans did, mirror sites crop up all over the place. It's like a Hydra: cut off websites and more will grow in their place."
"The Internet recognizes censorship as damage and routes around it", said Jones, who is president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a free speech advocacy group.
Creating mirror sites, a relatively easy process of copying banned web sites, is one of the two major weapons in the anti-censorship arsenal.
The other is the remailer, which strips Internet messages of all identifiers and allows people to communicate anonymously. Those who want to cover their electronic tracks can route their messages through several remailers anywhere in the world, making it virtually impossible to trace even the place of origin.
Even those searching for ways to regulate offensive material admit the barriers are formidable.
"I don't know how we're going to achieve it on an international level", said David Matas, counsel for B'nai Brith, which has targeted hare propaganda on the Net. "Sixty per cent of the world's web sites are in the United States and in the U.S. freedom of speech has priority over any law that prohibits hate propaganda."
The website Germans attempted to ban was produced by Toronto neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel, who used a website in Santa Cruz, California, to avoid prosecution in Canada.
Matas said yesterday some voluntary compliance among Internet providers to cut off hate sites could be the solution for those favouring regulation.
"Everyone has the right to free speech, but not everyone has the right to Internet access", he said. "A student doing a project on Treblinka could just as easily get a hate site as a historical site. Providers can stop that with neighbourly agreements."
Matas disagrees that the technology is not available to eliminate specific sites and says major international Internet providers such as MCI have the power to flip the right switches.