According to several reports a London-based ISP has been fined by a Human Rights Tribunal for allowing the posting of hate material on a hosted website. There are two problems with this.
First, it sets a dangerous precedent to fine an ISP for content that it hosts but is not responsible for posting. In this case, the owner of the ISP was also one of people who posted the objectionable material; however, according to the above-linked article the owner and the ISP were fined separately. I may be ignorant of the legal interpretation of such a decision, but if the ISP is separate from the poster and it too was fined, it would seem to imply that the same could apply to other ISPs that may host objectionable content even where the ISP owners are not the ones who posted said content. (Any readers who know more about this than I do should correct me if I’m wrong.) This case sets an unacceptable precedent that ISPs could be held liable for hosting content that is deemed objectionable, when they should legally be obliged to treat all content they host (or carry through their pipes) neutrally. The growth of the internet and its emergance as a platform for communication, political discussion, free expression, innovation, and all those good things is founded on technology that does not discriminate on the basis of the content that flows through the wires. It’s not a large step to go from this ruling to arguing that ISPs should also be responsible for objectionable content passing through their pipes. If ISPs are forced to watch for objectionable content, it will seriously cripple the main benefits of the internet. The internet has empowered individuals to express their own opinions, to create their own content, and to take advantage of new economic opportunities, and that depends on keeping it free of interference from anyone who wants to prevent the spread of objectionable material.
Second, as a matter of principle hate laws in Canada are incompatible with free speech. Free speech is not protected in this country; as a poster in an internet forum correctly pointed out, this type of speech is precisely the sort of speech that needs to be protected. If people can be prosecuted for publicly expressing hate towards a particular group, it’s an indication that hate speech laws are too restrictive. These particluar individuals were not, so far as I know, advocating specific acts of violence, only generic violence (I’ve been to the website via archive.org though I haven’t been through the whole thing). As such, in the absence of a specific threat, there is no reason to restrict this speech. Suppressing it only drives it farther underground; keeping it public and legal allows it to be debated, questioned, attacked, and that will ultimately do far more to defeat such speech that driving it down with hate speech laws.
Free speech is more important than tolerance.