Can The Net Be Censored? The Ernst Zundel Affair by Charles Gimon and Nizkor Shofar

grarpamp grarpamp at
Mon Nov 18 21:44:57 PST 2019

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

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
gimonca at or ay778 at Back to my net
Back to my home page.

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