[efc-talk, 05jan95]

Can they muzzle your modem?

by David Jones, djones@efc.ca, January 5, 1995

Will the Canadian Human Rights Commission try to control offensive speech on computer networks? Not likely.

Still, a recent Usenet news article posted by Mr. Goldberg raises some interesting issues.

  Newsgroups: can.infohighway
  From: ae763@FreeNet.Carleton.CA (Harvey Goldberg)
  Subject: Racism on the Internet
  Date: Mon, 26 Dec 1994 01:00:26 GMT
  Lines: 22
  The use of the Internet by white-supremacists, 
  Holocaust deniers, gay bashers and other elements 
  of the extreme right is matter of concern to human 
  rights agencies.
  I work for the Canadian Human Rights Commission.  
  I am currently doing research on the use of the 
  Internet for the propagation of hate material.  
  The purpose of the research is to determine what 
  measures could be considered to control the use 
  of the Net for this type of purpose.
  I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has 
  any views, information or comments on this 
  subject or who know of anywhere on the Internet 
  where this matter is discussed.
  Harvey Goldberg
  613 996 9661 (fax)
  613 943 9090 (voice)     613 996 5211 (TTY) 

To learn a bit about what was behind this inquiry, I spoke with Mr. Harvey Goldberg, who is a policy director with the Human Rights Commission. Here is a paraphrased summary of what I thought was notable.

Under what authority could the Human Rights Commission (HRC) control offensive speech ?

Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act is one possibility and it's been in the Act since the beginning. Back in 1977, at the time the Act was being drafted, a group called the Western Guard (a forerunning of Liberty-Net and the Heritage Front) operated a telephone hot-line that offered hate messages using an answering machine.

Section 13 was included to deal this kind of telephone hot-line established to promote hatred. It refers to:

Discriminatory practice for a person, or group of persons acting in concert, to communicate telephonically, or cause to be so communicated, repeatedly in whole in or in part by means of the facilities of a telecommunication undertaking within the legislative authority of Parliament any matter that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt by reason of the fact that the person or those persons are identifiable on the basis of prohibited grounds of discrimination."
The Commission received complaints under this provision, and in the case of "John Ross Taylor and the Western Guard vs. the Canadian Human Rights Commission", about 3 or 4 years ago, (the same time as the Zundel case), section 13 was challenged under the Charter as being an undue limit of free speech.

The Supreme Court ruled that it was a reasonable limit demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

Will the Human Rights Commission be taking steps to control offensive speech on the Internet?

We've been told that groups are using the Internet for racist messages, but we haven't received any formal complaints, and we can't initiate any actions unless somebody issues a complaint. Still, the question has been raised whether those people using the Internet would fall under this section of the Act and we're not really sure.

Just so I understand the implications of the Taylor case, ... If someone was to transcribe what was said verbally on the answering machine and just write it down on paper and then put that in a book and put it in a library, ... would that printed version of the identical information also be prohibited in Canada? ... or is it specific to the communication medium?

The section in our Act is specifically restricted to the repeated transmission by telephone. The publication of the same material in a book would certainly not fall under the Act. It is possible that something could be done about that under the hate propaganda provisions of the Criminal Code, but we have nothing to do with that. I agree it sounds a bit strange, but that is how Parliament enacted the law.

But shouldn't the content be the issue, and not the medium?

I can understand your point of view, but the Commission doesn't make the law, it only tries to enforce the law.

The government has said they will be reviewing the Act -- if they every get the issue of sexual orientation past their caucus. Presumably section 13 will be reviewed.

Do you think that the Internet transmission technology is close enough to being telephonic to be covered under the Act?

Our legal people are thinking about it, but even if we do theoretically do have a legal means to do something, technologically it is probably impossible for anything to be done. We could theoretically get an injunction against somebody for transmitting messages, but there is no no way that it can be policed, given the way the Internet operates and is so open and can be accessed from anywhere in the world. In my opinion, it would be rather futile to try to do anything. This is somewhat different from an answering machine that can be tracked down to one location and physically seized, although I guess it could pop up some other place.

But couldn't a Canadian organization set up an 800 number in the United States?

Actually, they've done something like that. In Vancouver, Liberty-Net ran a computer-assisted racist hot-line. They had quite obnoxious information. That was successfully closed down, but they started broadcasting the number in the United States in collaboration with someone named Metzger. In the United States, there's no effort at all to control this sort of thing.

Mr. Goldberg mentioned his inquiries were part of an informal and internal consideration of the Internet, and no formal report would be written.