By Joanne Chianello and Nahlah Ayed
Saturday, July 13, morning
iSTAR Internet Inc.'s decision to close the doors on what it considers illegal sites on the Internet is set to spark a nationwide debate on censorship and freedom of speech, a discussion that has gripped the United States for months.
Earlier this month, iSTAR quietly blocked access to sites it says provide illegal content, such as child pornography or bestiality. After months of customer complaints and discussions with legal authorities -- including the RCMP -- Canada's largest Internet provider voluntarily initiated a policy that the company "will not tolerate the use of its network for illegal purposes."
But other large Internet providers say they are not about to follow suit. While they say they understand iSTAR's rationale, they are under no legal obligation to take the same measures.
"If there was enough public concern, we would look at that", Irene Shimoda, the spokeswoman in Ontario and Quebec for Bell Canada's Internet service, Sympatico.
Canada has not laid out any laws regulating the Internet, nor is it expected to do so any time soon. Government bodies, including Industry Canada, have said the very structure of the Internet, a complex mass of networks over networks, makes it next to impossible to monitor. It is also not possible to stop individuals from posting information and pictures on certain parts of the Internet, especially newsgroups with the prefix "alt.", which stands for alternative.
While the laws are relatively clear on what kinds of information are illegal, the issue of who can be held responsible for its distribution is not.
"At what level does the responsibility kick in?" asks Andrew Patrick, first vice-president of the National Capital FreeNet. "Are telephone companies responsible for what's done on their telephone lines?"
Patrick says there is "no legal precedent or any kind of court cases involving this kind of issue."
Electronic Frontier Canada is a group that is concerned with protecting rights and freedoms as new technologies develop. President David Jones says the Internet should be regarded like Canada Post or the phone system. Under the law, these so-called common carriers are not responsible for the content of the messages they carry through their system, even if it is child pornography or hate literature.
A senior lawyer at the Department of Justice says that distributors are not usually held responsible for disseminated illegal information unless they consciously do so.
"Existing laws apply to the Internet the same way they apply to everyone else", says Paul Saint-Denis. "But Internet-service providers have to be doing this stuff knowingly."
While iSTAR is mostly concerned with the most flagrant violations of the law -- one blocked news group showed a man urinating on a child's face -- free-speech advocates fear Canada has started on a slippery slope that could lead to censorship.
It's always worrisome when one party tries "to restrict what consenting adults wish to see and hear", said Alan Borovoy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. "People will be inclined to overrestrict rather than underrestrict in order to play it safe, which is not a good thing in a democracy."
The Congress passed the Communications Decency Act in February and specifically dealt with punishing individuals who disseminate "indecent " material over the Internet. Last month, however, a three-judge panel in Philadelphia said the word "indecent" was too vague and the act was ruled unconstitutional. The case is headed to the Supreme Court.
Friday, Justice Minister Allan Rock publically supported iSTAR's decision to protect users from these illegal sites.
Even if Internet companies do decide to follow iSTAR, it won't eradicate the problem.
Just because one Internet-service provider blocks access to certain sites, there are almost always ways around that, including using another Internet service.
But that doesn't mean nothing can be done or should be done by Internet providers, who have a responsibility to society, says iSTAR's legal counsel Margo Langford.
Langford says that even if it wanted to, the company cannot monitor the 20,000-odd newsgroups that it carries over its national network. And it doesn't want to.
Instead, iSTAR will investigate any complaints it receives from customers or authorities. It will block access not to all areas someone considers offensive, only those deemed illegal.
It's not the first time Canadians have been faced with legal questions about the Internet. While there was a publication ban on evidence given at the Karla Homolka trial, there were many news groups set up to discuss the case. No one was sure whether these sites constituted a breaking of the ban and if it did, were providers responsible? The issue was never resolved, but some Internet services blocked access to the areas nonetheless.
Here's some further background information about big iSTAR-Internet censorship issue.
"Confidential memo" leaked to Electronic Frontier Canada
(Ottawa Citizen) iSTAR stirs free-speech debate over censorship (13jul96) gopher://insight.mcmaster.ca/00/org/efc/media/citizen.13jul96
(Now) Ditching sex groups just their little secret (11jul96) gopher://insight.mcmaster.ca/00/org/efc/media/now.11jul96
(Toronto Star) Internet provider blocks child porn (11jul96) gopher://insight.mcmaster.ca/00/org/efc/media/toronto.star.11jul96
(eye) iStar neuters the news (11jul96) gopher://insight.mcmaster.ca/00/org/efc/media/eye.11jul96