The dark side of the Internet— from hate messages to stealing information— is prompting calls for censorship and regulation
CRIME IN CYBERCITY
The dark side of the Internet— from hate messages to stealing information— is prompting calls for censorship and regulation
It is quite a neighborhood. Penthouse magazine is there, along with amateur pornography purveyors offering graphic portrayals of seemingly every form of sexual activity, from kiddie porn to bestiality. There is Ernst Zundel’s proclamation that the Holocaust never happened. And the forbidden secrets of the Karla Homolka case are revealed for those who cannot wait for the evidence to be presented in the Paul Bernardo murder trial. The neighborhood is the Internet, and the criminals have moved in. Some of the crimes, like obscenity, are familiar, but others have taken new forms, from information theft to the sabotage of computer systems with data-destroying vimses.
Although the neighborhood has much to recommend it, the dark side of the Net has people worried. There have been calls for laws to regulate and censor what moves across its wires. New laws, says Liberal MP Rey Pagtakhan, who is pushing for tighter control, will demonstrate that “we will not tolerate these types of activity.” The problem is figuring out how to impose those laws on a computer network originally designed to withstand a nuclear war. “The Internet regards censorship as a hardware failure and just works around it,” says Michael Martineau, vice-president of NSTN Inc., a Halifax company that provides Internet connections.
Canada has so far not experienced the kind of cybercrime wave seen in the United States, where most of the reported cases have occurred (page 54). In one of the most celebrated U.S. cases, computer hacker Kevin Mitnick was arrested last February in North Carolina and charged with stealing more than $1 million worth of data and thousands of credit-card numbers. In another, Jake Baker, a University of Michigan student, was arrested on threat charges against a fellow student after he wrote a fictitious article about a woman—named after one of his classmates—who was raped and tor-
tured. In Canada, only a last-minute check prevented the on-line version of February’s federal budget from spreading an unwanted computer virus. Then, last March, officials at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver found that hackers had broken into the university’s computer system and stolen about 3,000 passwords. And in April, Calgary police charged Alan Norton, 52, with multiple counts of possession of child pornography, alleging that he was part of a pom ring linked by international computer networks (page 58).
The Internet has stretched the concept of what the law means, where it applies and to whom it applies. Copyright law, privacy law, broadcasting law, the law against spreading hate, mies governing fair trials: all are running up against the technology of the Internet. “It presents challenges to the law because of the fact that it is presented
in a substantially different form,” explains David Johnston, a law professor at Montreal’s McGill University who chairs the federal government’s advisory council on the information highway. ‘That form, therefore, requires some adjustment and, some would say, very substantial stretching.”
Last week in Ottawa, MPs approved Pagtakhan’s motion urging the government to get tough with hate on the Internet, with members from all parties voicing their support. “Cyberspace is a free-for-all,” says Reform MP Keith Martin. Pagtakhan, a soft-spoken Winnipeg pediatrician, told Maclean’s that the hate messages he has seen have been “very scary” and would have a hurtful effect on young children. While he acknowledges enforcement would not be easy, he says that is not the point: ‘To any degree we can, we have to confront this.”
The government, Pagtakhan believes, will move quickly to set up new rules. The reason for his optimism lies in remarks by Justice Minister Allan Rock—made over the Internet—suggesting that Ottawa was on the verge of action. We are now considering new laws to establish limits on the use of the Internet and other forms of communication,” Rock said. But one justice department official, on condition of anonymity, said that no decision has been taken on how to toughen up enforcement.
In fact, the government is still trying to come to grips with the nature of the beast, conscious of the reality that this electronic neighborhood of bits and bytes can be a force of good. Sgt. Craig Hannaford, an RCMP Internet expert in Ottawa, says: “The vast majority of the use of the Internet is totally and completely legitimate.” But, he adds, “like any
community, you have a small percentage of people who are criminals.” Michael Binder, assistant deputy minister at the industry department, asks another key question: “How would you regulate it?” Computer and legal experts all agree that enforcement is difficult. Still, a committee of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has made several recommendations. One would make it illegal to possess computer hacking programs, those used to break into computer systems. Another would make the use of computer networks and telephone lines used in the commission of a crime a crime in itself. The committee also recommends agreements with the United States that would allow police officials in both countries to search computer data banks. But for the time being, Binder says, the government is in no rush to rewrite the statute books. “We don’t know how it will evolve,” he said. “We don’t want to stifle communication. We don’t want to shut down the Net.”
It is pornography that stirs the most controversy. But while there is no doubt that pornography is popular, it amounts to a trickle compared with everything else available on the Net. And as any walk past a magazine stand will demonstrate, dirty pictures are not automatically obscene under the Criminal Code. David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada and a computer science professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, says the Internet should be governed in the same way as other media. “Pornography is not illegal in Canada,” Jones said. “Visit Yonge Street in Toronto or watch cable TV if you have any doubt.”
Much of the debate about the Internet arises because it is so new. ‘We’re just sort of waking up to it,” says Ian Kyer, president of Computer Law Association Inc. and g a lawyer with the Toronto firm of I Fasken Campbell Godfrey. “Now o that it’s an everyday thing, it’s coming to the attention of the legislators and police forces, and I think they’re not going to like what they see.” But the debate is actually age-old and boils down to the limits that society sets on free expression. In an e-mail message, Troy Angrignon, a University of Victoria computer science graduate, told Maclean’s: “This is NOT a computing issue—it is a civil liberties issue.”
Freedom of expression is enshrined in the Charter of Rights, and the courts have generally protected it from government encroachment. Although the Supreme Court has not yet ruled on any Internet cases, a speech late last year by Justice John Sopinka gave some hint of how it might respond. While Sopinka observed that rights are not absolute, he made it clear that the court would not easily endorse wide-ranging restrictions. The court had struck down a municipal bylaw prohibiting posters on public property, he said, and then tellingly
added: “It may be said that the electronic media such as the Internet are the posters of the late 20th century.”
A NET SURFER’S GLOSSARY
USENET: discussion groups on the Internet, where users can post or download text files and images. Each newsgroup is devoted to a particular subject, from gardening to O. J. Simpson to bestiality.
a menu-based approach
WORLD WIDE WEB~
to navigating the Internet that uses hyper-text links, highlighted words that, with the click of a mouse button, take surfers to other sites on the Web.
TELNET INTERNET RELAY CHAT
a tool that allows users to log on to a remote computer, access files and even run programs.
sites where surfers can exchange messages almost immediately with others on the Internet. Like Usenet newsgroups, IRC sites are devoted to specific topics.
Almost like posters on telephone poles, the Internet appears to defy regulation, an irony given its roots as a research network for the U.S. defence department, which is no fan of anarchy. No one owns the Net, so no one controls it. Messages are passed from computer system to computer system in milliseconds, and the network literally resembles a web of computers and connecting telephone lines. It crosses borders in less time than it takes to cross most streets, and connections to Australia or Asia are as commonplace as dialling Ottawa or Washington. It is the Net’s very lack of frontiers that make law enforcement so difficult. “One of the real problems with the law of the Internet is deciding, where does the offence occur?” says Kyer.
The elusive nature of the Net is illustrated by a recent case in which a postal inspector in Tennessee downloaded pornography from a computer bulletin board in California. The board operator in California was charged and convicted in Tennessee, based on that state’s community standards. That decision, says Richard Pitt, CEO of Wimsey Information Services, a Vancouver-based Internet provider, strikes terror into the hearts of computer network operators. They may discover, says Kyer, that the Net may fall subject to regulation in every jurisdiction it touches. “If s a frightening prospect to think that we are all then bound by the laws of the most strict and puritanical jurisdictions in the world.”
The problems of enforcing one nation’s laws on the Net are illustrated by the gambling craze. A company called Sports International has established a betting operation on the World Wide Web. For two years, the bookmaker, based on the island of Antigua, has been taking bets on Canadian and American sports events, with bets paid by bank transfers. Next fall, it will become a virtual casino, offering roulette and blackjack to clients—including Canadians—sitting thousands of miles away at their computer screens. Is it illegal? “The question,” says Hannaford, “is where is it taking place.” On balance, he says, “probably there’s not a whole lot that can be done.” Zundel, a Toronto publisher with international neo-Nazi credentials, has an outpost on the World Wide Web, an Internet service that combines text and graphics with the seamless ability to move from one database to another using a technology known as hyper-text links. Information about Zundel’s cause is posted on an Orange County, Calif., computer by Greg Raven, associated with the Institute for Historical Review. Raven says he set up the Web site to disseminate Zundel’s views after a previous site, also in the United States, was shut down by the Internet provider. In addition, the on-line magazine of the white supremacist Heritage Front is found on a Web server in Florida.
The saying on the Net is that bits have no boundaries, and that is equally true of smut. Pornography might be sent from a computer in Manitoba to a computer in the United States and then to a computer in Europe, where it may reside, perfectly within the laws of that country. Canadian police forces can ask for help from foreign investi-
gators—but may not get it. A case may not be a priority, especially if the alleged crime is not illegal in that country. “International investigations don’t move that quick,” Hannaford notes. And Kyer points out that just as some small countries have sometimes set therpselves up as money-laundering havens, others could find it profitable to become data havens. The problems are pushing governments to talk about international treaties governing data flows, but so far little has been done.
Confronted with the difficulty of trying to grab on to something as amorphous as the Net, some critics and government officials are hoping that Internet service providers—companies like NSTN or Wimsey that, for a fee, will hook up companies and individuals—can police the Net themselves. The information highway council is expected later this month to approve a recommendation that would encourage the providers to develop a code of ethics, in the same way that broadcasters have been “encouraged” to regulate themselves in the transmission of violent television programs. The Net providers say they cannot hope to control what floods over their networks and trust that they will eventually be considered common carriers, as the telephone companies are, freed from liability for what people say and do over the phone. There have been no clear Canadian court tests. But a U.S. decision suggests that as long as online services do not provide content, they may not be liable for the information they carry; in other words, they would be treated as a library or bookstore, not a publisher.
At Wimsey, Pitt says postings in newsgroups—the equivalents of computer-based bulletin boards—add up to more than 100 megabytes
a day, the equivalent of maybe 20 million words. On the advice of its lawyers, Wimsey does not provide its subscribers with access to the newsgroups dealing with pedophilia or bestiality. But there is nothing stopping someone from posting an obscene picture to any newsgroup, no matter what the subject.
Wimsey was overwhelmed in trying to control the newsgroup discussions about the Bemardo-Homolka case, which quickly became a place to exchange information covered by a court-ordered publication ban. It was, says Pitt, like sticking a finger in a leaking dike. “It showed up in so many places on our machines that there was no possibility” that they could control it, he says. As the Supreme Court noted late last year in a decision setting new mies for publication bans: “In this global electronic age, meaningfully restricting the flow of information is becoming increasingly difficult.”
As Canadians try to come to grips with the Internet, one legal expert says the government should tread cautiously to avoid strangling a powerful resource. Jon Festinger, a professor of media law at the University of British Columbia and legal counsel for WIC, Western International Communications Ltd., says the Internet and the debate over it could help Canadians redefine the limits of control. “We should err on the side of tolerance,” he says, “and we should err on the side of freedom of expression.” □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.