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Tech Expert Now Says French-Mandated Yahoo! Nazi Site Filter "Half-assed And Trivially Avoidable"

Wednesday, November 29, 2000

By Applelinks Contributing Editor Charles W. Moore

The Register's Kieren McCarthy reports that one of three Internet experts who advised that it was technically possible to prevent French users from accessing pages Yahoo! US' auction site where Nazi memorabilia are sold "has posted an apology on his own Web site, saying that the solution is 'half-assed and trivially avoidable'."

Ruling in a lawsuit by the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism and the Union of Jewish Students of France last week, French Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez gave Yahoo! three months to develop filter technology to prevent French Web-surfers from accessing pages featuring Nazi-related objects. Yahoo! would be fined roughly $13,000 US for each non-compliant day after the deadline.

French law prohibits selling or exhibiting anything that incites racism, while the U.S. Constitution's free speech protections allow expression of racist or extremist ideas -- an obvious collision of values and standards. Yahoo! has removed Nazi paraphernalia from its France-based site, Yahoo.fr, adding warnings alerting French users that they risk breaking French law by viewing pages with sensitive material.

British expert Ben Laurie originally concluded that around 80 per cent of French traffic to the sensitive sites could be blocked although any control could be circumvented with a simple anonymiser program, and AOL subscribers are another "huge exception".

MacCarthy quotes Laurie making this admirable defense of free speech, thought, and expression:

"What is being fought over is literally what people think. No one should be able to control what I know or what I think. Not the government. Not the Thought Police. Not my family. Not my friends. The Internet is pure information. The fact that I cast aside my libertarian leanings in order to answer the question for the court, and yet was still unable to help in any substantive way, I find encouraging. We know we've done the right thing when our own best efforts cannot thwart it....

"The Internet does not adapt well to the control of subject matter, not that governments will intervene and censor it successfully - people have been trying to do that since it started, and they've never got anywhere. This case is no exception".

However, I must take vigorous exception to Kieran MacCarthy's assertion in response to Laurie's comments that:

"The truth of it is that a balance needs to be struck between freedom of information and the rights of all nationalities not to have others' views imposed upon them."

Qualified "freedom" of speech is no freedom at all, and nobody is imposing on anyone an obligation to visit Websites that disturb or offend them.

I am a free speech absolutist in matters of expression of _opinion_, including opinion that some people may find objectionable or even hateful. Everyone should have the freedom to voice any _opinion_ about anything or anybody (even about white, middle-aged, male journalists) without fear of penalty or reprisal from the human rights thought-police.

Oh no! some will protest; freedom of speech should only be permitted so long as it is "responsible speech," and doesn’t hurt anyone's feelings. Hogwash! I reply. If you place restrictions on free speech, it is no longer free. Maybe political correctness true-believers are sincerely convinced that society will be better off if those who hold ideas and opinions they consider hurtful or hateful are silenced and punished, but even when masquerading as humanitarianism, tyranny is still tyranny. The key word here is "permitted," which begs the question of who does the permitting.

Toronto Globe and Mail Assistant Editor Anthony Keller noted in a recent commentary: "The trouble with trying to shut down 'wrong' ideas is that people necessarily disagree about which ideas those are. That is precisely why liberal societies protect free speech: not because we are all in agreement, but because most of us disagree about many things most of the time."

However in a PC world we can safely assume it will be correct-thinking, "political cleansing" squads deciding who is or isn’t bigoted or hateful. These people fear public debate, which they want suppressed, and demand homogenization of "acceptable" social attitudes compatible with their emotional, utopian idealism. They are sanguinely prepared to sacrifice freedom at the altar of thought-control and their warped idea of egalitarianism.

A sinister new orthodoxy is being advocated -- a dangerous notion that criticism and negative comment are the moral equivalent of actual violence. For example the assertion that verbal abuse or even perceived 'leering" should be considered as actual categories of sexual assault. This absurdity trivializes the whole concept of sex crime -- which, when real, is indeed hideous.

It appears that things are about to get even worse. Two years ago Canada's federal and provincial Attorneys-General agreed that Canada's hate crimes law will be expanded to include even more categories of alleged "hate," and chillingly, that THE TRUTH OF ANY STATEMENT WILL NO LONGER BE ACCEPTED AS A DEFENCE. George Orwell, phone the office.

A foundational principle of free speech, thought, and expression must be that sometimes hurting people’s feelings is unavoidable in the pursuit of truth and free expression of ideas, and there is nothing wrong with this. As Oliver Herford wisely observed: "A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

Cultural commentator Jonathan Rauch writes: "Without the freedom to offend, freedom of expression ceases to exist. Can it legitimately be called 'hate crime' to upset someone? People who are 'hurt by words' are morally entitled to nothing whatsoever by way of compensation. The appropriate response should be: 'too bad, but you’ll live.'"

The standard answer to people who say they are offended, says Rauch, should be: 'Is there any casualty other than your feelings? Are you or others being threatened with violence or vandalism? No? Then it’s a shame your feelings are hurt but that’s too bad. You'll live.'" Jonathan Rauch, by the way, is Jewish and a self-identified homosexual.

Charles W. Moore