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The Internet must remain open – even for those we disagree with

By Byron Holland
President and CEO

Over the past couple of weeks, there has been significant discussion about various technology companies removing websites from their servers, or otherwise making them unavailable. As the operators of Canada’s Internet domain, CIRA is getting numerous enquiries about our stance and policies on this issue. Byron Holland responds.

Over the past couple of weeks, following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, there has been significant discussion in social and traditional media about various technology companies removing websites from their servers, or otherwise making them unavailable.

As the operators of Canada’s Internet domain, we at CIRA are getting numerous enquiries about our stance and policies on this issue. I’d like to use this opportunity to make a couple clarifications about how CIRA works and what CIRA actually does.

First, and perhaps most importantly, CIRA has no involvement on the content of .CA websites. Our role is to manage the registration of the domain name and to ensure that Registrants (those that register .CA domain names) and Registrars (the organizations that sell the .CA domain to Canadians) meet CIRA’s legal and policy requirements , such as Canadian Presence Requirements. We are also responsible for the safe, secure and stable operation of the underlying domain name system (DNS). We are one part of Canada’s Internet ecosystem, working with registrars and web hosting companies who interact directly with Canadian organizations and individuals who purchase a .CA domain and host relevant content. Policing content is not what we do.

I’ve written before about an open and free Internet and I stand firm in this belief. I must take this stance even when it supports content that differs from my personal beliefs. Open means open for all.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t struggle with it. I find many of the websites in question repugnant — websites that express derogatory views of people based on their religious beliefs, race, gender or sexual orientation. They go against everything I believe in and the values I teach my children.

But I stand firm that the Internet must remain free and open, and taking actions to remove websites, regardless of how repellent the content, would go directly against this approach. A free and open Internet precludes my personal beliefs related to its content and I couldn’t continue to lead CIRA, an organization committed to managing Canada’s domain, if I didn’t support this viewpoint for all Canadians, even those I disagree with. One individual should not have the power to make these decisions based on personal beliefs or as an emotional reaction. CIRA has policies in place to ensure this can’t happen.

There is, however, a clear line to this open and free Internet: when laws are broken.

CIRA will assist authorities to remove sites that are breaking the law, be that through hate speech, fraud and others, when presented with a Canadian court order or other judicial instrument. For example, a .CA domain was recently seized by the Edmonton Police Service . This fraudulent site was stealing financial information and money from people and through a court order CIRA assisted the Edmonton Police. This is a prime example of a line that was crossed. The proper authorities were involved, a judicial order was sent and CIRA took appropriate action. We support the ideals of an open Internet but not at the expense of the laws of the land.

To those who reached out to us concerned that we may be participating in what they feel is censorship, you can rest assured we are not. And to those who would like to see us engage in this more heavily by taking down hateful sites, we would ask you to examine these sites and if you feel they are promoting hate speech or breaking the law, contact your local authorities and work with them first. The processes exist for CIRA, as well as our channel partners and Canadian hosting companies, to work with the legal system to prevent criminal activities in our digital space.

An open and free Internet includes the zealots that spout outlandish ideas, and on the other end of the spectrum, cat videos. More importantly, it includes helpful information, art, science and transformative, democratizing thinking. And that is worth protecting, even it if means protecting the others as well.

While I don’t agree with the content of all websites that hold a .CA, I support their right to exist as long as they remain within the bounds of Canadian law. For many of us, it makes sense to take down sites that are racist, sexist or homophobic. But just because that makes sense to you or me it doesn’t make it right.

Take the Miller test (read up on it here), which is the United States Supreme Court’s three prong obscenity test. One of those prongs relates to the community within which the content exists. The Internet muddies the water here. While content may be published in one community, it can be consumed in another. So how do you define “community” in the Internet age? What is offensive to some, is not to others.

The Internet connects us all, across Canada and beyond. It includes divergent opinions and perspectives on many different issues. It is not for me or CIRA as a whole to decide which opinions are right or wrong, but rather, it is our responsibility to stand by the continuation of an open and free Internet – while also working to protect the .CA space by working within – and helping enforce – Canadian law.

About the author
Byron Holland

Byron Holland (MBA, ICD.D) is the president and CEO of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), the national not-for-profit best known for managing the .CA domain and developing new cybersecurity, DNS, and registry services.

Byron is an expert in internet governance and a seasoned entrepreneur. Under Byron’s leadership, CIRA has become one of the leading ccTLDs in the world, with over 3 million domains under management. Over the past decade, he has represented CIRA internationally and held numerous leadership positions within ICANN. He currently sits on the Board of Directors for TORIX, and is a member of the nominations committee for ARIN. He lives in Ottawa with his wife, two sons, and their Australian shepherd, Marley.

The views expressed in this blog are Byron’s opinions on internet-related issues, and are not necessarily those of the organization.