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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 1997

Censoring the Internet

Matthew Kerby
As access to the Internet becomes more widespread so too does the debate between free speech and censorship of the information highway.

Last year the Canadian public was inundated with reports in the news of the RCMP making various busts of people in possession of staggering amounts of illegal net pornography.

Under Canadian law it is illegal to make, possess or distribute pornography that, according to the Supreme Court of Canada is degrading, violent, dehumanizing or involves children. The involvement of computers in the pornography trade has interlinked these three charges. The law considers viewing illegal pornographic images off of the Internet as both possession and production as the computer makes a copy of the image and stores it on the hard drive. Sending a copy of the image to another computer via e-mail or the world wide web is considered distribution. Possession entails a five year maximum jail sentence and production and distribution can land the alleged pornographer 10-years behind bars. However, it is not difficult to program a computer so that there is no trace of the forbidden fruit.

In the United States the Internet and pornography have become inextricably linked in public discussion and therefore a concerned parent’s/teacher’s/minister’s/politician’s worst nightmare. As in the general debate about pornography, the would-be censors focus on child pornography as the wedge with which to introduce much more sweeping restrictions on all viewers and readers. They focus on the fact that many parents understandably worry about the degree to which they can control or monitor their childrens’ access to "undesirable material" on the Internet. The United States Congress rushed to pass legislation, the Communications Decency Act, which, it was alleged, was designed both to appease the moral majority but to be so sweeping in its drafting that the courts would inevitably rule it unconstitutional.

This is exactly what has happened so far. Last June a Federal court in Philadelphia blocked the enforcement of the Act which makes it illegal to put indecent material on the Internet which can be accessed by a minor. The Federal court stated the Communications Decency Act was "unconstitutionally vague" and that communication on the Internet should be subject to First Amendment protections. The federal government has appealed the decision and now the Supreme Court will decide.

Although American law is not the same as Canadian law, that decision will have nevertheless considerable impact in Canada since so much of the material on the Internet originates in the United States.

While the Internet has not become such a hot political topic in Canada there are indications that it is moving in that direction. Consumer and legal concerns were cited by iSTAR, Canada’s largest Internet provider, as the reasons it quietly removed some of the more risqué news groups in the hierarchy from public access. Internet providers are worried that they too may be charged or held responsible for illegal material that their customers and clients download. But as of yet no legal foundation exists that might land an Internet provider in jail. Like common carriers such as Bell Canada or Canada Post, Internet providers are not responsible for the content of the programs or documents that they carry. They will only be charged if they knowingly possess, make or distribute illegal material.

However, Internet providers are not shirking away from any kind of responsibility. Providers like iSTAR encourage their users to take advantage of net monitoring applications that deny access to sites, chat lines or news groups that contain undesirable terms or words. Of course selecting as an undesirable term not only prevents access to the obvious pornographic news groups but also, a news group dedicated to Star Trek’s Capt. Picard. Also, net nanny programs exclude legitimate news groups or sites on sexual topics such as alt.sexual.abuse.recovery or those dedicated to sex education. Furthermore it is not too difficult to foil such nanny programs or to use foreign sites that are beyond the scope of Canadian control.

Universities play the free speech/censorship game on both sides. University providers in Canada decide on their own as to which news groups they will restrict access. At Carleton University in Ottawa, Internet policy is decided by a four member Offensive Content Committee. Their decisions to restrict access are based on what they "consider to be illegal." This kind of action prompted massive student response in Montréal when McGill University restricted its news groups and across town rival Concordia University did not. Carleton University Computing Services Director David Sutherland explained that a complaint was made by students last year over freedom of speech at Carleton but since then he reports that Computing Services has not received any complaints or any trouble regarding pornography on the net.

A more disturbing trend in universities is the carte blanche policy that university providers have to look into the Internet accounts of its students, staff or faculty. University providers claim the right to open e-mail or conduct key stroke checks — that is conduct a search of all the commands or addresses entered by a user, without the knowledge of the user. At Concordia this policy is made clear in its rules and regulations for Internet use but at Carleton there is no mention of this anywhere on its homepage or in its printed rules.

As it stands, government regulation in Canada of the Internet is limited. The Internet is regulated by the same obscenity laws that govern the more traditional forms of pornography. But this does not mean that the situation can’t change. When iSTAR removed its news groups last July Justice Minister Alan Rock publicly came out in favour of the provider’s move towards self-regulation, not a surprise given the amount of time and resources required to effectively monitor the Internet. Industry Canada and the Department of Justice are both looking into the question of Internet restriction and responsibility.

For more information on the Internet and censorship issues in Canada take a look at the following web sites: Industry Canada, Electronic Frontier Canada

Matthew Kerby is currently studying Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa.