A case unfolding in Canada and the U.S. exemplifies all that is terrible and difficult about free speech on the Internet. Ottawa human rights lawyer Richard Warman and the Canadian Jewish Congress have asked the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) — similar to the FCC — to direct Internet service providers in Canada to block two hate sites based in the U.S. Warman says the sites, run by white supremacist Bill White of Roanoke, Va., contain “an actual call to murder myself and all Canadian Jews,” according to an article by the Canadian Press.
The terrible part of the equation is the hate speech and the content of neo-Nazi sites on the Internet. Time and time again, we find that the Internet as a Wild West of open content contains some of the darker sides of human nature, from child pornography to graphic violent acts. I have been drawn down to this netherworld before, reporting for the Online Journalism Review on a site that published the name and home address of Kobe Bryant’s accuser in a rape trial from 2003. And again, when the site NTFU offered soldiers in Iraq free access to porn in exchange for gory photos from the war.
But the difficult part of the equation is not to “blame” the Internet for this darker side of humanity. Microsoft blogger Don Dodge notes that the Internet acts only as a magnifier for society.
“The Web is the great magnifier of society,” Dodge writes on his blog. “It magnifies everything beyond its normal proportions and importance. If you think the world is good, you will find a lot of good on the web. There are sites for parents, kids, cancer survivors, support groups, etc. If you think the world is bad, you can also find a lot of bad on the web too. Everyone’s definition of good and bad is different.”
As with the stories I wrote above for OJR, I have mixed feelings about even bringing attention to this story, for fear that my links and attention will only bring more power to the hate groups. White has already celebrated getting 79,000 new visitors to his white supremacist site because of the furor over blocking it from Canada. That blog post is titled: How to Pull a Media Stunt.
Just writing that last sentence is an exercise in ethics. Do I link to his blog? Am I helping or hurting his cause? As in previous cases, I come down on the side of openness and linking so that people can learn and decide for themselves. My link — or lack of link — isn’t going to make or break him.
Google Warning or Hack?
One thing you’ll notice if you do link to the blog is that Blogger puts up a warning before you enter the site:
Some readers of this blog have contacted Google because they believe this blog’s content is hateful. In general, Google does not review nor do we endorse the content of this or any blog. For more information about this message, please consult FAQ.
You can then choose to enter the site or not. Within Blogger’s FAQ, there’s a note about special cases for hate speech: “When the community has voted and hate speech is identified on BlogSpot, Google may exercise its right to place a Content Warning page in front of the blog and set it to “unlisted” [in the blog directory].”
A Google spokesman had told the Canadian Press that they had taken down the blog, so it’s hard to tell whether they reversed their decision or whether White has figured out how to avoid the site takedown by Google. In a recent blog post, White exulted:
Today, Google tried to take away my blogger account at the insistence of the Canadian government.
This evening, I hacked through their ToS [Terms of Service] blocking software, took control of my account back, and just did a full download and back up of this site. And, I’ve now learned how to hack into any ToS banned Google sites.
This back and forth shows how difficult Canada’s attempt at blocking a site through Internet service providers (ISPs) would be. White is Net-savvy and would pop up on another domain if they try to block one domain, meaning the plaintiffs would have to petition the CRTC endlessly.
The question has arisen among bloggers as to whether calling for the murder of an individual — and running his home address — and calling for the overthrow of the Canadian government by force is illegal by itself. According to lawyer Mark Goldberg, who helped petition the CRTC, “two U.S.-based websites have now called for [Warman] to be murdered and provided his home address. The sites also call for the violent overthrow of the Canadian Government and for the streets to run red with the blood of Jews.”
White denies that he called for the murder of Warman, and only said it would be OK if someone else did it. Once again, the limits of ugly free speech online are being tested, and perhaps the Canadian and American courts will be able to untangle this mess.
While the First Amendment grants a right to free speech, there are exceptions, notes media analyst Cynthia Brumfield at the IP & Democracy blog.
“The First Amendment does not protect speech that threatens others or that could incite panic or rioting,” she wrote. “In fact, calling for the murder of people is grounds for arrest and indictment. I’m not as familiar with Canadian free speech law, but from what I do know, the laws are similar in both countries.”
What do you think? Should the Canadian telecom commission rule that ISPs must block the U.S. white supremacist sites? Should Google take down White’s blog? What do you see as limits to free speech online? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
UPDATE: Bill White, who runs the sites in question here, explained to me in an email how he has protected his main website from legal hassles:
I have servers and backups and off-shored mirrors and whatnot all over the world. The last time a lawyer seriously came after me for alleged ‘harassment,’ I had to move the site to Malaysia for a few weeks until my attorneys could put the guy down.
I have two law firms on retainer and enough money to pay for the computer
equipment necessary to keep myself publishing regardless.
It is very difficult — if not impossible — to stop someone from publishing online if they have enough resources and determination. If the person is breaking the law, however, the authorities could always arrest them for that violation, though other people might continue to operate the site.
An Ottawa computer engineer who blogs by the name of Engtech explains in great detail (much better than I could) why trying to block a site is futile.
Photo of Free Speech Zone at George Mason University by dcJohn.