TORONTO — Canada’s criminal justice system has begun to crack down on people who are spreading antisemitism and other forms of bigotry over the Internet.
A Montreal man faces up to two years in jail after pleading guilty earlier this month to willfully promoting hatred through a racist Web site that he created and managed; in Edmonton, Alberta, a man is to be sentenced in August after being convicted last year of operating an antisemitic Web site, and a Port John, British Columbia, man is set to stand trial in September on similar charges.
Canada’s readiness to confront Internet-based hate appears to have increased even more following the arrest earlier this month of 17 alleged Al Qaeda sympathizers in Toronto. The arrest followed a police investigation into a purported terrorist plot to bomb Canada’s parliament and other prominent landmarks. The probe was triggered by surveillance of Internet chat rooms.
The criminal justice system’s new firmness was welcomed by Canadian Jewish Congress and by B’nai Brith Canada. Both organizations have campaigned forcefully against the online propagation of hatred.
“It’s a step forward,” said Allan Adel, national chair of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights. “It creates precedents. To that extent, it is an encouragement for prosecutors who have these types of cases cross their desks.”
Prior to these prosecutions, the only legal measures taken against hatemongers were fines — up to $12,000 — imposed by the quasi-judicial Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. The criminal code’s anti-hate provisions, listed in Section 319, provide for up to two years in jail for people convicted of incitement to hatred, but the provisions were not enforced against online hate until last year.
“We have to use a mix of what is available” to combat online hatred, said Bernie Farber, the Congress’s CEO. “Section 319 should be used carefully, judiciously and only in the most extreme forms of hatred.”
Farber testified as an expert witness at the Edmonton trial and is expected to do so in Port John.
CJC also is attempting to convince telecommunications companies to shut down hate sites, but many companies are loath to take such a drastic step unless there is a legal ruling against a customer.
Addressing a meeting of top telecom executives here last week, Farber called on companies to work with CJC to develop a set of protocols based on existing laws to enable them, on their own initiative, to suppress hate sites. He told the Forward that the executives have agreed to establish a committee over the summer to examine the issue.
Some telecom executives, however, told the Forward that they have serious reservations about acting on their own to suppress hate sites. “My concern is that it can be sort of subjective as to whether it is a hate crime or not,” said Ken Engelhart, vice president of regulatory affairs at Rogers Communications. Rogers is one of Canada’s major telecommunications companies. “It takes a certain amount of expertise [to determine a hate crime]. That expertise exists within the Human Rights Tribunal.”
Telecom executives and Jewish communal officials do agree that there are very few complaints about Canadian-based hate sites. In an effort to circumvent Canada’s anti-hate laws, most Canadian hatemongers have moved their Web sites to servers in the United States, said Tom Copeland, chair of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers. The association represents most of the country’s major telecom companies. But the recent conviction of Jean-Sébastien Presseault in Montreal for spreading hatred against Jews and blacks might mean the end of this loophole. In the landmark ruling, the Quebec judges rejected the assertion by Presseault’s lawyer that because the site was hosted on an American-based server, Canadian courts have no jurisdiction.
Still, as with all Internet content, most of the hate sites seen in Canada are operated by people in America, who are not subject to Canadian laws. Farber of CJC said that Canadian telecom companies are open to discussing the possibility of blocking foreign-based hate sites’ accessibility in Canada.
According to Copeland, however, there is no filtering technology that suits all networks. Moreover, he said, viewing hate material — unlike disseminating it — is not illegal in Canada. So if Canadian carriers blocked Canadians from viewing American-based hate sites, the sites’ owners could sue the Canadian companies. He conceded, however, that such suits would be “highly improbable.”
B’nai Brith Canada’s Adel said that because Web sites have a global reach, “it requires international cooperation and treaties at the international level to make life uncomfortable for these criminals.”
With that in mind, B’nai Brith Canada has scheduled its third international Symposium on Hate on the Internet in Toronto on September 11, to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The organization plans to bring together scholars and law-enforcement experts worldwide.