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Montreal Gazette, December 05, 1998, p. B5

"Crusaders in cyberspace: Those who want to crack down on Internet
  hate-mongers are actually more dangerous to society than those who
  insult and offend."
by Matthew Friedman

Do-gooders want to save us from the Net. They've looked out
at the trackless expanse of cyberspace and they've found bad people
and bad ideas, and they want to protect us from their foul
influence. Who will protect us from them?

     Last week, the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Working Group on

Diversity and Equality and Justice submitted a parcel of proposed
Criminal Code reforms to the federal minister of justice. They would
expand the definitions of the existing hate-crime statutes and
create a new offence: possession of propaganda for the purpose of
distributing it to promote hate.

     It's no secret that the reforms are directed primarily at online
neo-Nazis and hate propagandists. British Columbia Attorney-General
Ujjal Dosanjh, a working-group participant and one of the reforms'
biggest boosters, said that his office was "galvanized" by an
incident involving hate Web sites hosted in Oliver, B.C.

     Indeed, activists such as the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's Sol Littman

have long campaigned for tougher laws to combat hate on the
Internet. More than once, Littman has observed how difficult it isto
prosecute Internet hate cases under existing laws.

     The working group was listening. Dosanjh is clear enough about
that. "We need an offence that's easier to prove," he said. "This
amendment will create that offence. Once you intend to promote hate
- that's where the line is drawn."

     Unfortunately, things are never quite that simple on the Internet.
As president of the B.C.-based Nizkor Project, Ken McVay manages the
largest collection of hate propaganda on the Internet. His aim is to
combat it by exposing the inconsistencies, fallacies and the
ugliness of Holocaust-denial and Nazi propaganda to the harsh light
of truth. While no one could accuse McVay of promoting hate, white
supremacists and neo-Nazis regularly create links from their Web
sites to content on Nizkor's.

     Is that possession with intent to promote hate? McVay can only
shake his head at the hypocrisy. "If an idea is so dangerous in and
of itself that you have to legislate against it, then the whole
question of intent is irrelevant," he said. "If it's dangerous it's
dangerous whether it's on my site or (white supremacist) Tom

     And that's the problem with the proposed Criminal Code reforms.
Indeed, Alan Borovoy, general counsel to the Canadian Civil
Liberties Association, has observed that the government is, in fact,
going in the wrong direction. Rather than expanding the definitions
and making it easier to get a conviction, it should be "narrowing
the anti-hate legislation. It's already too broad an enactment."

     Most civil libertarians have a hard time swallowing the anti-hate
statutes as they exist today. The laws are tolerable only because it
is very, very difficult to make a hate-crime case in criminal court.
You can't send a person to prison because he says "I hate
immigrants" on a radio show or if he maintains a Web site
questioning the historicity of the Holocaust.

     It's easy to be nauseated by people like Holocaust-denier Ernst
Zundel, but they don't present an immediate threat to anyone's
physical safety or livelihood. No one has ever been physically
attacked by an on-line skinhead - it just doesn't happen - and no
one has ever had his rights, rather than his sensibilities, violated
by a virtual Nazi.

     The Web is a cheap publishing medium, and racists, who are excluded

from most mainstream media, have jumped at the opportunity to set up
shop on the information highway. On the Web and Usenet, they can say
what they like, when they like. But they're very easy to ignore. The
Internet is so big, and the racists so few, that few people ever
encounter them unless they seek them out.

     Is it really worth expanding the hate laws to deal with a few
annoying, but ultimately impotent, fanatics on the fringes of the
information society?

     The danger here is not that jackbooted legions are going to march
along the Internet, out your computer monitor and into your home. It
is that, when we give away a little more of our rights and freedoms
to fight unpleasant or unpopular ideas, we will never get them back.
really is a slippery slope in Canada, Borovoy has observed.
"Ever since the government embarked on a course of trying to outlaw
expressions of hatred, it's shown that there is a slippery slope,"
he said. "One thing has led to another."

     Crusaders like Dosanjh and Littman are doubtless motivated by the
best possible intentions. They believe - rightly - that there is no
place for bigotry in a democratic and pluralistic society. However,
they make a mistake if they believe that, by outlawing expressions
of hatred, we will eliminate the danger of hatred itself.

     The truth is that we have a lot more to fear from people like
Dosanjh and Littman than from Zundel and Metzger. As annoying as
they are, hate-mongers merely insult and offend us. They hurt
feelings and not bodies. On the other hand, the crusaders - with the
best possible intentions - will gladly strip us of a little more
freedom, and that's more dangerous, by far.
    Copyright Montreal Gazette 1998

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