When Jonathan Halevi found that websites affiliated with Hamas and Hezbollah were being hosted on servers owned by the Canadian company iWeb he contacted iWeb and asked for them to be taken down. He was not successful. However, when CBC translated some Arabic in the discussion forum and contacted iWeb claiming that they were hosting “a site whose content could violate Canada’s anti-terrorism act” iWeb re-evaluated and took down the sites.
It is unclear exactly which specific sites were targeted although both www.almanar.com.lb (Hezbollah affiliated) and www.aqsatv.ps (Hamas affiliated) were both previously hosted on iWeb. After the initial complaint, iWeb reviewed the English content of the web site(s) (almanar has an English section, aqsatv does not appear to have an English section it is not clear what was actually reveiwed) and determined that “the English version did not seem to have any content which could violate our policies or laws.” However, after CBC’s claim that they were in violation of Canada’s anti-terrorism act iWeb removed the site(s):
In this case, analysis of the site had been done on the English version of the site, a version that did not seem to include material or content that was illegal or in violation of our terms of service (these facts were confirmed by journalists involved in this case). We informed our customer of this complaint and of the conclusions we came to. We also informed the individual who made the complaint, who did not provide any feedback or additional information.
It actually appears that the offending content which lead to the removal of the web sites were actually COMMENTS posted beneath an article:
People’s comments under the article in question are a good example, several believe that the site had to be removed and others believe that this is freedom of expression; who is right?
In response to the original complaint iWeb suggested that that the RCMP be contacted and if the content violated the law they would act. But after CBC’s involvement they acted to remove the content without this:
For our part, we determine that the initial complaint, which did not target a specific part or section of the site was not, at first glance, substantiated and that the version and sections of the site that we analyzed were conformed with Canadian laws and our policies. That being said, we originally specified to the person who made the complaint that if they felt the issue required legal attention, that they should voice their concern to the competent authorities like the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) so that they can also analyze the content and that we will collaborate with their verdict. When the complaint reached us for a second time, the new information provided to us made us revise our position. We then agreed that it was not informative speech or opinion or freedom of expression anymore, but a threat to human beings who violates our policies for using this service and why we intervened by shutting down the sites in question.
The details are still a bit confusing:
- What were the exact web sites in question? Are they in fact www.almanar.com.lb and www.aqsatv.ps?
- What was the exact offending content that CBC felt was a violation of Canada’s anti terrorism act? Was it a post in a discussion forum? Was it a comment posted below an article? On which site?
- Were these web sites removed due to content posted by USERS and not by the owners of the sites?
- Were the owners of the web sites given the opportunity to moderate/delete the offending user comments?
- Were the owners of the web sites given the opportunity to keep the English version, which had no offending content?
This, of course, is not the first time this has happened. I have posted about this in the past:
Content removed for allegedly supporting terrorism is one of the least documented forms of takedown… The Internet Haganah, which calls for the removal of sites which allegedly support terrorism, had counted 600 successful takedowns by 2005. These include websites, groups hosted by Yahoo! and storefronts at Cafe Press. In 2005, the Toronto-based Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center had several sites removed by their ISPs, one of which only contained a flag that carried the inscription, ‘There is no other God but Allah’. There was no hateful text or material advocating suicide bombing. The issue, as noted in the press release, was that the flag appeared to be the same one used by Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a group that, at the time, was not on the US State Department’s or Canada’s list of terrorist organisations.
Pending answers to the questions above, it seems that the issue here is not one of content but of association, pressure and selective enforcement.
OrgName: In2net Network Inc.
Address: 3602 Gilmore Way,
Address: Suite 210
These cases raise troubling question concerning transparency and due process the lack of which leads to chilling effects on freedom of expression. While the details are still unclear, it appears that these sites were removed after CBC determined that forums posts or comment posts were in violation of Canada’s anti-terrorism act. That is, not content posted by the owner’s of web sites but by users. And it is unclear if the owner’s of the sites were given the opportunity to moderate the offending content. This has consequences that go beyond just this case. The “vigilante model” of takedown puts the power of judge, jury and executioner in the hands of hosting providers and ISPs. The entire process lacks transparency, accountability and oversight.