Cyber-Hate

By Matthew Lauder

Canada has some of the most ambitious anti-hate laws in the world. Yet racial tensions and ethnic hatred continue. Karen Mock of the B'nai Brith's League For Human Rights states: "Racism and hate propaganda have long been a part of the Canadian experience...In the last six years, we have recorded a steady increase in reported cases of anti-Semitic vandalism and harassment."

The most recent manifestation of racism in Canada is the use of the Internet to publish propaganda and promote genocide. There are over 150 extreme-right web-sites on the Internet, offering a vast array of racist literature and graphics. Such sites usually operate under the guise of either free-speech advocacy or immigration and economic policy reform.

Unlike traditional means of communication such as the newsletter, the website offers the hate group an inexpensive means of communication. Cyber-hate is alarming because it uses the most efficient and effective means of global communication currently possible. In just a few seconds, any user regardless of his age, can gain access to a hate web-site, and download pages of text and graphics without legal hindrance or technological impediment. National boundaries are irrelevant and legislation, such as Canada's anti-hate laws, is useless.

Blame Policy, not technology

The current problem of cyber-hate is not one of technology, but rather one of public policy. The most common means for any government to deal with this problem is either to modify existing legislation or to introduce new, more inclusive anti-hate laws. But policy makers have not acted quickly enough to modify existing legislation to deal adequately with the capabilities of the Internet. Hate groups have gained a formidable beach-head on the Internet and cleaning up cyber-space will be difficult.

But is a reactive policy of state governance (which many organizations, such as the anti-racist Nizkor Project, see as constituting censorship) the best way to control hate on the Internet?

The World Wide Web will, like its predecessors (video tapes, audio cassettes, texts, and CD-ROMs) be replaced in time by newer methods of persuasion, which will in turn require a new legal response. Legislation, because of its specificity, is inherently obsolete; it cannot adapt to advances in communication technology. Moreover, the introduction of more restrictive legislation is destined to fail on the grounds that it contradicts the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and is not justifiable in a free society (Ernst Zundel was aquitted by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1992 on these grounds). The failure of current legislation has opened Canada to racists.

The legal inadequacies of Canada's anti-hate laws aside, there are three problems inherent in the criminal law approach to hate propaganda:

1. It pushes racists underground, making it more difficult to observe and counter them;

2. It reinforces the extreme right's belief that they are an "oppressed" sub-culture, that the government (often referred to as the Zionist Occupation Government, or "ZOG") is against them; and

3. It serves in the development of hero-worship. Through the martyrdom of imprisonment, racist leaders (such as Zundel or Wolfgang Droege) can provide the group with purpose, identity, and direction. By enforcing the law and offering long prison terms, the justice system is empowering the sub-culture.

Interim control mechanisms

If social governance is neither effective nor desirable, then what is to be used? Three strategies have been developed by Canadian civil action groups as an interim control mechanism.

The first method is that of rebuttal, a technique long used by the Nizkor Project and other anti-censorship/anti-hate organizations. Rebuttal allows for the unrestricted dissemination of hate and negates it by offering a more "insightful and historically accurate" examination of political and social history. Ken McVay, director of the Nizkor Project, suggests that rebuttal is the most effective counter-measure: "[W]hen you're living a lie, the lie has to get more complicated-they're always contradicting themselves...so that the lie itself becomes self-evident."

This method (operating on the presupposition that the average Internet user possesses the cognitive and moral ability to choose between right and wrong) eliminates the question of censorship and the stigma of governmental control. But it does not compensate for the real human pain of having swastikas, ethnocentric messages, or racial caricatures on one's computer screen; nor does it keep children from accessing the hate sites without understanding the true context of the debates.

The second method is that of moral suasion, a tactic which has been successfully used by social activists and interest groups throughout the 20th century. Moral suasion would shift the responsibility of eliminating cyber-hate from the government to non-governmental organizations, special interest groups, and social activists, avoiding the problem of censorship and the inadequacy of the anti-hate laws. Concerned individuals and organizations would consolidate and cooperate in a social movement to increase public awareness and encourage economic sanctions against the Internet service providers who offer access to hate groups.

This sort of action aims at eradicating cyber-hate by denying hate groups access to the Internet. For this method to be successful, society must act as a whole, which would be extremely difficult considering Canada's social and political lethargy.

The final method is the use of the Canadian Human Rights Act (specifically, section 13.1), which has proven to be more effective in deterring racial and ethnic hate than the Canadian Criminal Code. Acting upon complaints lodged by Sabina Citron (founder of the Canadian Holocaust Remembrance Association) and the Toronto Mayor's Committee on Community and Race Relations, the Canadian Human Rights Commission has recently ordered hearings into Zundel's use of the Internet to promote Holocaust denial. Max Yalden, head of the Commission, maintains that regardless of the point of origin of the material (in this case a service provider in the U.S.), Zundel is ultimately responsible for its dissemination over the Internet.

However, the success of the Human Rights Act hinges not on its broad description of "discriminatory practice" but on the interpretation of the word "telephonically." The Act prohibits the repeated use of the telephone for the purpose of exposing a person or persons to hate or contempt. Although it uses telephone lines, computer communication does not "modify acoustic vibrations to an electric signal for the transmission to a second party." Because cyber-hate is entirely electronic and interactive it can be argued that it does not fall within the parameters of the Act. And even if this section could be applied successfully to the Internet, new advances in communications, such as computer links using television cable technology, will soon make the Act obsolete-eliminating the last legal means of policing the Internet.

The civil law approach

The problem of racism is dynamic and no single solution is permanent. At best, activist movements or the modification of anti-hate legislation are a limited cure for what may be a systemic social disease. Obviously, with the acquittal of Zundel and the potential of the Human Rights Act now in doubt, progressive new methods of eliminating racism must be developed.

Rather than treating hate as a criminal offence, social and legal policy should provide the means for civil litigation, with a mandate well beyond the classification of a libel suit. Suing the hate group for compensation, an approach used in the United States with much success, may likely be the only effective means of reducing the racist organizations' ability to propagate hatred on a large scale. To take money from racist organizations is to limit their access to mass communication and their ability to spread hatred. Only then may racial tension and hate be eliminated.

Matthew Lauder is a post-graduate research scholar at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1997

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1997, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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