Can the Net be Censored?

by Charles A. Gimon



This year is shaping up to be the year of Internet censorship. Yet as the pro- and anti-censorship sides of the argument do battle in the United States and other countries, a third view is being tested. Is it even possible to censor the Net? It's been assumed that the Internet is immune from censorship, that its architecture makes it impossible for any one organization to control. That assumption is now on the line, as some governments around the world are learning just how difficult the Internet can be to control, while others continue to make plans for a clampdown on Internet freedoms.

The most aggressive moves against the Internet have been coming from the new Germany. The San Jose Mercury News of January 27th, 1996 reported that Deutsche Telekom, the national phone company in Germany, had blocked its customers' access to Web Communications of Santa Cruz, California. One of Webcom's customers, a Canadian citizen from Toronto named Ernst Zundel, had put up a web page on Webcom's server to speak for a controversial point of view called "Holocaust revisionism". In a nutshell, a "Holocaust revisionist" is someone who believes that the Nazis didn't actually kill millions of Jews during the 1930s and 1940s--or at least not very many. Most people file Holocaust revisionists in the same category with people who still believe the earth is flat. Nevertheless, in countries that do not have the constitutional guarantee of free speech that Americans have, expressing such views can be illegal. (Zundel had already been brought up on "hate speech" charges in Canada.)


Ernst Zundel
In Germany, Zundel would be guilty of "Volksverhetzung": roughly, instigating the public to hatred. German authorities couldn't touch Zundel on the other side of the Atlantic, but they did start an investigation into whether Internet providers who made his page available could be charged with the same crime. Deutsche Telekom, which provides Internet access through its subsidiary T-Online, several German universities and other sites fell into line and blocked access from their sites to, even though no court order had been served. The threat of charges had been enough.

For free-speech activists, the challenge had been made. If the German government could block Internet access to sites it didn't like, other governments were sure to try the same thing--even the United States, where President Clinton was on the verge of signing the "Communications Decency Act" into law as part of a huge telecommunications reform bill.

It was impossible for the Germans to censor only one page--blocking meant stopping a range of IP addresses. Free-speech supporters figured that if Zundel's site was copied to the best sites on the Internet, the German government would be forced to cut Germany off from the Net completely, slice by slice. The first Zundel mirror site was put up by Rich Graves at Stanford University. With an address including the line "Not_By_Me_Not_My_Views", Graves put up a complete copy of Zundel's web site on one of Stanford's servers: if the German government wanted to censor, they would have to do without the Internet resources at Stanford as well.

Soon mirror sites popped up at major universities all across North America. Declan McCullagh, a tireless Internet and free-speech activist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, put up a mirror site of his own. McCullagh was already known for opposing CMU's own attempt to limit Usenet access, for helping to expose the bad research in Marty Rimm's "Cyberporn" study, and for working with the Justice on Campus project to counter "politically-correct" campus speech codes.

Most of the University sites were supportive of the spontaneous free-speech movement. Only one mirror site, the one put up by Lewis McCarthy at the University of Massachusetts, was forced to close down. UMass administrators stated that they didn't want "political material" on their servers.

None of the original sites were supportive of Zundel's views, only of his right (and everyone's) to freedom of speech. Within a few days, though, the wild fringe was heard from, and other Zundel mirror sites were put on the Net bywhite supremacists at the University of Texas, Georgia State and America On-Line. The culture-clash between the free-speech activists and the "white nationalists" was very real. At least one page lied about Declan McCullagh, saying that he was in full support of Zundel's views on the Holocaust (he wasn't at all). Notorious white supremacist Tom Metzger claimed that Zundel staged the whole thing as a publicity stunt. Yet as the statements from the far-far-right got wackier, the basic rationale of the free-speech activists was proven correct: good information will drown out bad information. Expose the views of Zundel and others to the light of day, and they can be cross-examined into oblivion, maybe even laughed into it.

By the early morning of February 2nd, a traceroute from to showed that the blocking had been lifted. The battle appeared to have been won. However, it was announced that the investigation had been broadened to include AOL, which had only been offering access in Germany for a few weeks. CompuServe, which had already been forced to block access to several Usenet newsgroups by a prosecutor in Bavaria in January, was placed on notice that it was part of the investigation as well. (As of this writing, the investigation had not come to any conclusion.) The freedom of speech message in the campaign had not gotten through to everyone in the United States, either: the Simon Wiesenthal Center faxed university higher-up at all the sites stating their disapproval of college sites hosting the Zundel pages, and ignoring the "Not_My_Views" disclaimers.

At exactly the same time as all this was going on, the French goverment was learning a similar lesson. In France, Dr. Claude Gubler, who had been the personal physician to the late President Mitterand, published a book, "Le Grand Secret", about his career with the President. It included personal details of Mitterand's suffering with prostate cancer, which the two of them had kept secret from the public for years. Forty thousand copies of the book were issued before a French court could issue a ban on it on January 17th.

One of those copies fell into the hands of Pascal Barbraud, owner of an Internet cafe in Paris. Barbraud took the book, scanned it, and put scanned images of each page of the book on the Internet. French citizens who couldn't get a rare paper copy of the book could now read it on the Net--as could anyone else in the world. The French government wasn't pleased: Barbraud was soon apprehended on "unrelated charges".

Barbraud wasn't the most techno-savvy person on the Internet, either: the scanned images in his site were huge, and took an agonizingly long time to view. Stephane Etienne, a grad student at the University of Glasgow in the U.K., wrote a script that tried to connect to Barbraud's server again and again until a full copy of the book could be reassembled in Glasgow on January 27th. Over that weekend, Sebastien Blondeel and Declan McCullagh (who was putting up a Zundel mirror site at the same time) converted the images of the pages into ASCII text, which reduced them to small files, easy to read and fast to download. The full text of "Le Grand Secret" was put into McCullagh's web pages at Carnegie Mellon, where they can still be read today. The French attempt at censorship had failed.

(Grand Secret Logo)

In spite of these developments, other governments continue to try to control the Internet. The most vocal government in favor of Internet censorship (with the possible exception of the United States) is the People's Republic of China. Beijing has been making efforts in two different directions: funding and expanding Internet access on one hand while threatening to prosecute Net hooligans on the other. Internet service providers are kept on a tight leash by the Chinese government. Only about 1000 or so Usenet groups are allowed into the country. China was brash enough to congratulate German prosecutors when CompuServe blocked access to certain Usenet newsgroups under pressure. Whether the Chinese government is technically capable of censoring the Internet is another question. Identifying and following every packet of information within their borders would be just about mathematically impossible. If the Chinese government lives up to its press releases and prosecutes people for transmitting "pornographic and detrimental information", it will have to do so by singling out individuals; there is no way to stop traffic of any kind, good or bad, in a world with anonymous remailers, strong encryption, and distributed networks.

As Australia and New Zealand consider legislation comparable to the recently enacted--and immediately enjoined by court order--"Communications Decency Act" in the United States, the question that remains is not whether the Internet should be censored, but whether it's even possible to censor it.

You can find the original Ernst Zundel site at:

Rich Graves' homepage is at:

Declan McCullagh has the full text of "Le Grand Secret" at:

The fight-censorship mailing list, where much of this was discussed, is archived at:

And for a well-researched critical response to Zundel, you can browse the Nizkor Project's pages at:

Charles A. Gimon teaches an Intro to the PC class at the English Learning Center in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at or
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