Over the past two years, as Canadian anti-Semites have slowed the pace of physical attacks on Jews, they've begun spewing more and more venom online. But the move from real-world violence to online yammering has done little to ease observers' concerns.
"History has shown us that what may begin with words, may end in violence and even genocide," said Lisa Armony of B'Nai Brith Canada, which monitors both virtual and real incidents of anti-Semitic violence and is organizing an international symposium on hate on the Internet, running Sunday through Tuesday. "So the rise in online hate speech is something it's imperative to counter. Whether that should be a regulatory effort or not is something we want to explore."
But if regulating impolitic speech in real-world environments such as private companies, university campuses, and any single country seems difficult, doing so on the Internet will most likely prove impossible.
"As soon as you think about crafting an international agreement on banning hate speech, you run into problems", said Richard Rosenberg, vice president of Electronic Frontier Canada. "I mean, how would you even get people to agree on what to regulate? Germans have a law against Holocaust denials. In the United States, you have a First Amendment right to spew whatever garbage you want. Where's the common ground?"
And without common ground, the Internet obviates national law. Earlier this year, international mirrors of a banned site in England thwarted the Nottinghamshire County Council's attempt to squelch an embarrassing report first published on a British Web server. A Chilean newspaper publisher thwarted local laws forbidding the publication of news critical of the judiciary by putting the information on a server in New York. French and Canadian laws forbidding the publication or broadcast of polling data in the days immediately before an election could do nothing when foreign sites made the information available.
Nonetheless, Armony holds out some hope that existing laws may help stem the online tide of hatred. "It's fitting that Canada should take the lead on this, because we do have existing hate laws. We should simply be able to apply those to the Internet."
But an ongoing Canadian case against Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel points up the practical impossibility of applying even tested laws to the Net. The Canadian Human Rights Commission is prosecuting Zündel for his anti-Semitic Zündelsite. But the site is hosted from a server in Orange County, California.
"Here's a Web site in LA, and it only becomes a Canadian issue when the bits cross the border. How do we deal with that?" says Rosenberg. "Even if Ernst Zündel is found guilty of hate speech, what would that mean? The Web site wouldn't disappear. The speech would still be out there. Would service providers be responsible for limiting their users access to the site? That's untenable and unacceptable."
Armony acknowledges the problem, but still believes there's room for progress. "Even when you acknowledge the very real extra-territorial publishing, you still have to take action. We see this symposium as a way to at least start an international dialogue."