Liberals’ Plan to Curb ‘Internet Harms’ Puts Free Speech at Risk: Expert

By Andrew Chen
Andrew Chen
Andrew Chen
Andrew Chen is an Epoch Times reporter based in Toronto.
November 2, 2021 Updated: November 2, 2021

The Liberal government’s upcoming legislation to address “online harms” could undermine Canadians’ freedom of speech and render diasporas from authoritarian countries more vulnerable, says the director of an internet security advocacy group.

Between July 27 and Sept. 25, the federal government held public consultations on its proposal to introduce new legislative and regulatory frameworks for social media platforms that aim to address five categories of “harmful content” online: hate speech, terrorist content, content that incites violence, child sexual exploitation, and non-consensual sharing of intimate images.

The Liberal Party’s platform for the 2021 federal election promised to introduce the legislation within the first 100 days if re-elected.

Philip Palmer, director of the Internet Society Canada Chapter, said the proposed legislation poses a potential threat to Canadians’ charter-protected rights.

“I have a number of concerns, but the primary one is that it will lead to over-censorship of content on the internet,” Palmer told The Epoch Times.

“The definitions are loose, the entities to which it is to apply are unclear, and the weight of the applications of legislation will lead to an over-application of the criteria for harmful content.”

Palmer notes that the proposal’s 24-hour time limit for social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to take down flagged content is structurally geared toward censorship.

“That time pressure plus the sanctions that can be applied to economic and reputational [damage to a company] all drive in favour of suppressing content rather than permitting content,” he said.

A vague definition of what constitutes “harm” in each category may also encroach upon free speech, since otherwise-lawful speech that is deemed offensive to certain people could become criminalized under the new legislation, Palmer explained.

“Democratic debate and social debate have never been confined to the polite shallow speech—it has always engaged passions, emotions, overstatement, over-representation, satire, irony—all of which can be objectionable to some people in some groups—but it’s not illegal, it’s not criminal,” he said.

“The thrust of this legislation will be to suppress speech that is at the margins of polite conversation or beyond the margins of polite conversation, but nevertheless lawful.”

The Epoch Times reached out to Heritage Canada for comment but did not hear back by the time of publication.

Broadening Internet Control

The government has made several legislative attempts to regulate content on the internet in the past year, such as through Bill C-10 and Bill C-36, both of which proved controversial.

Epoch Times Photo
Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault during a news conference in Ottawa, April 17, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

Bill C-10, introduced by former Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault in November 2020, proposed to bring internet content providers under the regulation of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. The legislation sought to regulate streaming services like Netflix in areas such as Canadian content and tax-collection requirements.

The bill became controversial when it was amended to include user-generated content on social media platforms.

“[Bill C-10] got into trouble in the House of Commons and was facing fierce opposition in the Senate due to its trenching on social media platforms—expression by private citizens in the form of postings to social media,” Palmer said.

“It’s clear that in taking on streaming services—and again streaming services are not clearly defined—they’re seeking to regulate on-demand content. … That’s a clear and deliberate march into an area that previously was unregulated.”

Bill C-36 proposed to allow individuals to file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission if they experience “hate” online, including hate crimes and hate speech. Hatred is defined as an “emotion that involves detestation or vilification and that is stronger than dislike or disdain.”

In a recent article published on the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s website, Palmer noted that the bills introduce a “host of legal and policy concerns” including the potential for extra-territorial reach.

“The harmful speech could be in a foreign language, on a foreign platform and impact a person or persons outside Canada—yet the new regulations would still apply to that content,” he wrote.

“Canada would essentially be asserting jurisdiction over the entire Internet.”

Hacking Risk

In contrast to the Conservative government’s Bill C-30 (Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act) of 2012, which allowed law enforcement agencies to ask private organizations to voluntarily provide personal information without consent, the Liberals’ proposal would require social media companies to proactively report individuals whose online activities are deemed harmful.

That private information reported to law enforcement or national security would be kept in computer databases, which could be vulnerable to hacking by authoritarian regimes, thereby facilitating these countries’ control of their diaspora, Palmer said.

“Russia, China, Iran have all provided clear evidence that they can hack into a whole lot of databases, and they may in that way be able to scoop information about individuals, and particularly concerning would be in individuals who are involved in oppositional groups,” he said.

Palmer added, however, that he’s optimistic improvements will be made to the legislation, especially given that “some of the advocacy groups that are ordinarily lined up with the government, in this case are also expressing concern about the lack of definitions.”

“I remain optimistic that the government will retreat from some of the more egregious proposals that they’ve made, and moderate it such that we’ll have effective legislation that will actually protect Canadians from some real harms on the internet,” he said.

Andrew Chen
Andrew Chen is an Epoch Times reporter based in Toronto.