B'nai Brith Urges Internet Censorship

to Silence Holocaust Debate

Re: International Symposium on Hate on the InterNet (Invitational)
March 21-23, 1999, Toronto


Karen R. Mock and Lisa Armony

The Internet is the world's fastest growing means of telecommunications. Comprised of individual computers, servers, and the telephone lines that link them, the Internet connects people across the globe, allowing them to instantly share thoughts and ideas in ways never before possible. Its global reach and relative ease of use make the Internet a unique, highly effective tool for the promotion of human rights, as unprecedented audiences, previously unexposed to human rights education can gain access to valuable information. Unfortunately, the very mechanisms that make the Internet an exciting educational tool also render it a dangerous, albeit efficient means of promoting hatred against racial and religious minorities. In fact, hate mongers were among the first to realize the tremendous power of the Internet to spread their messages. As a result, the computer is replacing conventional modes of communication as the dominant conveyor of hate propaganda.

The kinds of hate found on the Internet include expressions of hostility to "civil rights types" and "mud people" (the neo-Nazi term for non-whites and non-Christians), along with condemnation of race mixing, and page after page of antisemitic tracts, the majority of which deny that the Holocaust took place and promote conspiracy theories and other age-old antisemitic canards. Among the most virulent established websites are Canada's Heritage Front, Ernst Zundel's "Zundelsite," Tom Metzger's White Aryan Resistance (WAR), Aryan Nations, the Ku Klux Klan, Radio Islam, the Committee for the Open Debate of the Holocaust Story, and the National Alliance, arguably the most openly Nazi organization on the continent.

A recent report of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre identified over 600 hate sites worldwide, a 100% increase from last year. In Canada, approximately 150 people are thought to spend their time posting hate propaganda. Although hate mongers represent only a tiny proportion of the total Internet population, their ability to reach the estimated 50 million Internet users worldwide gives them a voice that far outweighs their numbers. Moreover, because the Internet is oblivious to international borders, material prohibited by Canadian law flows freely and unchallenged both into and out of this country. As a result, the media has reacted enthusiastically, providing a near-continuous flow of stories relating to hate and pornography on the Internet; and human rights and anti-racist organizations have voiced serious concern. Political reaction has been predictably vocal, and calls have been made for legislation to regulate the net, as well as to apply existing laws to Internet offenders.

 To Regulate the Net...or Not?

Questions of whether and how to legislate the Internet have been the subject of heated debate. Civil libertarians describe any attempts to regulate the Internet as censorship and an invasion of privacy, while some technologists claim that all such attempts are futile and that regulatory laws are virtually unenforceable. Nonetheless, several national and international covenants and declarations, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Criminal Code of Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Code, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, the International Convention Against All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognize the need to balance people's freedom of expression with their right to be free from hate targeted against them.

Germany is the first country to try to patrol the information highway. In June 1997, the German parliament passed the first comprehensive national Internet law that sets out the rules for protecting confidentiality of personal data. The new law prescribes responsibilities for pornography and other objectionable material (e.g. Nazi propaganda, Holocaust denial), as well as granting licenses for "digital signatures," electronic codes that are supposed to make commercial transactions on the Internet both secure and confidential. In spite of the objections by many Americans, who balk at anything resembling a violation of free speech and expression, German officials are unapologetic. According to the law's sponsor, Jurgen Ruttgers, Minister of Education and Technology:

It's a liberal law that has nothing to do with censorship but clearly sets the conditions for what a provider can and cannot do. The Internet is a means to transport and distribute knowledge...just as the highways, there needs to be guidelines for both kinds of traffic.

Germany has also indicted Felix Somm, managing director of CompuServe Germany, for failure to prevent the dissemination of three types of illegal material: child pornography and violent sex; computer games using images of Hitler, swastikas and other Nazi graphics; and a computer game with excessive violence beyond the standards set by Germany's Youth Protection Authority. In addition, German legislators have recently enacted the Information and Communication Services Law which, under some circumstances, places responsibility for illegal content on Internet Service Providers.

 Self Regulation

In the past few years, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have entered the debate over how to control the spread of illegal and harmful material on the net. ISPs in several countries have formed industry associations in an attempt to establish codes of conduct, or at least to develop a common approach to the regulatory issues raised. For example, the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) Code of Conduct maintains that its members will not knowingly host illegal content, and that they will make a reasonable effort to investigate legitimate complaints about illegal content or network abuse and will take appropriate action. The Code of Practice of the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) of the U.K., which was originally voluntary but became mandatory for members in 1997, states that members "shall use their reasonable endeavours to ensure...service and promotional material do not contain material inciting violence, sadism, cruelty or racial hatred." In 1997, the European Internet Services Providers Association (EuroISPA) was established with seven member service provider associations, representing over 400 ISPs across the European Union. Its stated goals include "to promote self-regulation and to influence the regulatory process on behalf of the Internet industry." In addition, there have also been initiatives to set up "watchdog" groups to monitor illegal material on the Internet. In some cases, where specific organizations have not been established, human rights NGOs have taken on this task.

Human Rights Test Case

In Canada, a Human Rights Tribunal is currently underway against Ernst Zundel and the "Zundelsite", a website replete with Holocaust denial and hateful diatribes against Jews and other minority groups. In this case, the complainants, Sabina Citron and the Toronto Mayor's Committee on Community and Race Relations, allege that the respondent has engaged in a discriminatory practice on the grounds of race, religion and national or ethnic origin in a matter related to the usage of a telecommunication undertaking. The three main issues that have been raised at the hearing are:

a) is the Internet a "telephonic device" within Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act so as to give the Tribunal jurisdiction?
b) does Zundel control the California-based Zundelsite? and
c) does the content of the Zundelsite promote hatred?

The site is said to be operated by Ingrid Rimland in San Diego in an attempt to circumvent the Canadian hate laws (Sections 318-320 of the Criminal Code). However, it appears clear that she gets her marching orders directly from Zundel. So far, the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Commission has been upheld by the Federal Court because the applicable section of the code refers to the use of telephonic transmissions, and e-mail and the Internet utilize telephone wires. The Tribunal will continue in the fall of 1998 and likely into 1999. Regardless of the results, the Zundel case promises to be precedent setting in the struggle to come to terms with the Internet.

Using All the Available Tools to Counter Hate

As the Zundel case continues, so too do international deliberations on whether or not (and if so, how) to regulate the Internet. These questions were the main thrust of B'nai Brith Canada's International Symposium on Hate on the Internet, held in September, 1997 in Toronto. Over 100 Canadian and international government and police officials and experts in the fields of law, legislation, human rights, technology and education convened to explore the problem of hate on the Internet from various philosophical perspectives and professional approaches. The recommendations of the symposium were designed to counter the growing problem of hate on the Internet and to assist in national and international policy development. The recommendations dealt with four substantive areas: legal/legislative regulatory measures; voluntary non-regulatory measures; the role of police; and educational/pro-active initiatives (See Appendix I for the complete list of recommendations). Among the key recommendations were the application to the Internet of existing laws and international standards pertaining to hate, the establishment of voluntary codes of conduct by ISPs, and greater educational initiatives to instruct young people on how to recognize hate and Holocaust denial, with greater emphasis on anti-racism education and training than presently exists.

Despite good intentions by some governments and international institutions, the global nature of the Internet and the ability to create mirror sites make the application of existing laws to the Internet difficult if not impossible. How then are we to deal with the problem of millions of people being exposed to virulent antisemitism and hate propaganda at the flick of the switch on their computers? The answer is no different from the approach we continuously advocate to counter the more traditional tactics of the hate mongers in this country.

A coordinated effort on several fronts, using all resources available, is the most effective way to ensure the struggle against hate will be won in Canada. This work must be about protection, partnerships and prevention. In order to accomplish this, our three most powerful tools are the law, community action and education. Although hate propaganda (the promotion of hatred against identifiable groups) has been a criminal offense in Canada since 1970, the application of the law with regard to the Internet presents complex problems, primarily over jurisdiction issues in trying to contain an activity that defies borders. Yet we must attempt to implement our laws and codes wherever they are applicable.

Ultimately the battle against racism and hate on the Internet will be won through increased efforts to incorporate Holocaust education, multiculturalism, anti-racist, and human rights education in our schools. Computer literacy courses, indeed most of our courses, need to be supplemented by strategies to recognize lies and propaganda, in spite of how credible the purveyors of hate may try to make them appear, so that when our youth stumble across such material, in whatever form, they will reject it. In Canada, websites such as the Canadian Human Rights Commission (that includes the new interactive game Countering the Hydra of Hate), B'nai Brith Canada (including the League for Human Rights, and Holocaust and Hope), Artists Against Racism, and the Nizkor Project (with thousands of pages of historical facts on the Holocaust to counter Holocaust deniers) demonstrate that meticulous research and dedicated cooperation can provide the educational impact needed to confront hate on the Internet.

Dr. Karen Mock is National Director of the League for Human Rights of B'nai Brith Canada.
Lisa Armony is National Director of the Institute for International Affairs of B'nai Brith Canada