Nazis, the Web and me

Summary:So you believe the Internet should be an unfettered free-speech zone, and woe to any government agency that dares to set limits on what people can publish?That may be a tame enough opinion guaranteed to win Brownie points with the latte crowd at the local cafe -- but now let's make things a tad more challenging.

So you believe the Internet should be an unfettered free-speech zone, and woe to any government agency that dares to set limits on what people can publish?

That may be a tame enough opinion guaranteed to win Brownie points with the latte crowd at the local cafe -- but now let's make things a tad more challenging.

Meet Ernst Zundel, a man who fervently believes in free speech on the Net.

Huge Hitler fan
Zundel also happens to be a huge fan of Adolf Hitler and says the Nazis did not plan to exterminate the Jews during the World War II.

For the past three years, Zundel has used the Internet to peddle a revisionist take on contemporary history and promote his denial of the Holocaust theory on a Web site called the Zundelsite .

His views are entirely unremarkable -- a mish-mash of pseudo-history and what comes across as old-fashioned Jew-hating -- built around a central belief that "stripped of some of the outrages in Second War, Hitler was good for Germany."

Zundel, who claims he has not had a fair hearing in the media because of his particular views, says the Zundelsite has allowed him to connect with thousands of people he might not otherwise have been able to reach.

And he has a point. When it comes to transmitting information around the globe, has there been anything to rival this incredible medium? "The Internet has meant for me what it has meant for other dissidents in Russia and China and other places," Zundel told me. "This is the democratization of information."

Democratization -- for good and for bad (More about that later.)

Zundel now figures in a case that tests how far the law can -- and should -- go to restrain hate speech in cyberspace.

A persecuted immigrant?
A German immigrant who resides in Toronto, Zundel has attracted the attentions of Canada's Human Rights Commission, which wants to shut him down.

The country's Human Rights Act forbids the use of telephone lines to spread hate messages, and the courts are not likely to be persuaded by Zundel's argument that the Internet is not a phone answering machine.

"We cannot win this case," he predicts. "Not the way the Canadian human rights code is written. They're trying to shut me out of the Internet."

That would be impossible. The site is managed out of Southern California by a woman named Ingrid Rimland who "consults" with Zundel on what goes online.

"She set up the site. She holds all material in HTML and she uploads all the material -- she even named the site," he said. "And yet, they want control of the Internet. The Canadian commission is just looking for new empire-building fields."

Let's not confuse things. John Peter Zenger, he is not. The Canadians obviously know that even if Zundel winds up behind bars, the Zundelsite will continue to operate in his absence.

And so it should, say garden-variety free-speechers like myself. The First Amendment should protect the right of people to spout bilge, as long as they don't incite to riot.

Free speech über Alles? Not!
Still, all that John Stuart Mill stuff about the free marketplace of ideas aside, I have to confess uneasiness at sticking with the party line.

Or with Zundel's statement that "what comes up on the screen is value-neutral."

We don't live on top of Mount Olympus. Peoples' writings always reflect a point of view and when free speech meets the specter of jackboots at midnight, there's always going to be a collision.

It's how you deal with the aftermath that sets Us apart from Them.

Topics: China, Legal

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