Friday, October 31, 2008

Canada's approach to web censorship -- first let the flowers grow, then lop them off - Full Comment

Kevin Libin: Canada's approach to web censorship -- first let the
flowers grow, then lop them off

Posted: October 30, 2008, 12:50 PM by Kelly McParland
Full Comment, Kevin Libin

Canada's Human Rights Commissions don't have many fans left these
days. Few seem to take seriously the occasional, tired parry favouring
speech limitations from old but loyal warhorses like the Canadian
Jewish Congress and Grant Bristow, fighting yesterday's battles
against obscure neo-Nazis operating fringe websites. Most Canadians,
by all available evidence, seem far more concerned these days about
the more worrisome implications that have come with the censorship
territory - prosecuting periodicals for insulting the Islamic prophet
or forcing Christian ministers to refrain from criticizing homosexual
behaviour - than about any dysfunctional teenager with a Landser album
and a web connection. But aside from hard-to-swallow warnings that
without its section 13 rules against speech "likely" to incite
contempt against certain groups, the country would be swept up by
Hitlermania, the HRCs and its comrades have been at a loss to offer
much in defense of the commissions' chilling crusades.

Far be it from me to offer their arguments for them, but if they were
smart, the HRC's defenders might want to look to our sisters in the
Commonwealth for a powerful case as to why the current system could be
defended as better than the alternatives. In Australia today, we learn
for instance, that the government has set out to implement a AU$125
million filter that will censor all Internet traffic in peoples' homes
to ensure citizens are not exposed to material unapproved by
government officials. First to go, reportedly, are websites counseling
euthanasia or eating disorders, though it seems hard to imagine the
government stopping there, and the plan has drawn natural comparisons
between Internet controls in China, Iran and North Korea. But then, it
also bears some resemblance to the UK's recently revealed plan to
monitor - and catalogue - all Britons' e-mail and web browsing in the
name of fighting terror. The sun, it seems, never sets on the British
Empire's impulse to censor. So much for Churchill's famous command
that "freedom of speech and thought should reign."

If indeed censorship is now the Anglosphere's reflex - even the
Americans have their famously curmudgeonly FCC, though its arena of
influence is far more limited - at least one can say this about the
Human Rights Commissions: it's possible they have a relatively saner
approach than our Commonwealth compatriots (Australia and the UK have
institutions known as human rights commissions, too, but they lack the
power to suppress speech). Rather than prevent free citizens from
communicating whatever opinions we wish, first, Canada's government
lets a thousand flowers of free thought bloom - and only then cuts
down and punishes any blossoms displeasing it. HRCs, at the very
least, require a form of procedural quasi-transparency and validation
after the fact, in the form of hearings (rather than censoring first).
Sure, they have a 100% conviction rate, and much of their procedures
are closed to the public, but each case has within it the potential to
raise the public's ire and potentially scuttle the affair - as is
almost certainly what happened in various HRC's predictable decisions
to dismiss widely derided complaints against Maclean's magazine. Plus,
it doesn't slow down the Internet connections for the rest of us, an
apparent flaw in the Australian plan which critics say will drag web
speeds by about 30%. Jennifer Lynch, are you paying attention? This,
more than anything, is the best argument in favour of maintaining the
HRCs. Except . . .

Except for the fact that advocates for Canada's Human Rights
Commission have already taken a run at the Aussie plan. A couple of
years ago, HRC activists Richard Warman and Bernie Farber (of the CJC)
actually petitioned the CRTC to filter out certain websites from being
seen in Canada. They apparently wanted to go even further, not just
leaving the prohibition decisions up to the whim of state officials,
but establishing a process to allow "interested parties" (like them,
perhaps?) to have a say in which sites got banned, too. Fortunately,
the CRTC rejected the request. Unfortunately, it was on the basis that
considering such policy changes would necessarily first involve
consultation with Internet Service Providers.

See the rest of the article at: