Peter Menzies: Real Intent of ‘Online Harms’ Legislation Is to Crack Down on Opinions Ottawa Considers Misinformation

Peter Menzies: Real Intent of ‘Online Harms’ Legislation Is to Crack Down on Opinions Ottawa Considers Misinformation
Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez rises during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on May 31, 2022. (The Canadian Press/Justin Tang)
Peter Menzies

Expressions of opinions that aren’t supported by facts could soon be ordered removed from social media in Canada if the chief architects of the nation’s nascent Online Harms legislation have their way.

The federal government’s first attempt at Online Harms legislation foundered last fall after it was soundly denounced by civil rights and other organizations for violating fundamental principles of due process and freedom of expression as protected in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Indeed, Twitter went so far as to describe the proposed legislation as reminiscent of online censorship regimes put in place by notoriously authoritarian governments.

“People around the world have been blocked from accessing Twitter and other services in a similar manner as the one proposed by Canada by multiple authoritarian governments (China, North Korea, and Iran for example) under the false guise of ‘online safety,’ impeding peoples’ rights to access information online,” Twitter stated in its filing on the legislation.

OpenMedia cautioned the bill could “lead to the automatic reporting of an enormous volume of lawful content directly to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), deputizing online platforms as surveillance agents of the state in a system not seen anywhere else in the democratic world.”

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association worried that the government’s plans would turn online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter into “agents of law enforcement, creating mandatory reporting and preservation obligations that may expand over time and significantly impact the privacy rights of Canadians.” The inclusion of CSIS in the process was, it noted, “of particular concern.”

In response, the Department of Heritage, under the guidance of Minister Pablo Rodriguez, retreated and formed an expert advisory group to delve into its desire to control online speech and develop recommendations regarding how the legislation should be framed. Summaries of that group’s discussions are posted on the Government of Canada’s website.

While the discussions are likely of greatest interest to policy wonks, they do illustrate a healthy and vigorous debate on a topic which should be of concern to all those who believe in personal liberty and democracy—our freedom of expression. Sometimes, these summaries even hint at reasons for optimism concerning the Liberals’ plans.

“Many experts stated that the protection of all rights should be explicitly stated in the legislative preamble,” states one posted summary.

“On this latter point, some experts emphasized that a strong preamble will be necessary, one that references how all Charter rights act together, as opposed to singling out certain rights. Other experts expressed that any preambulatory language must explicitly explain the freedom of expression, stating that it includes the right to express distasteful, offensive and unpopular opinions and the right to form our opinions free from interference.”

But according to sources following this and other online legislation being undertaken by the Trudeau government, that latter view is unlikely to carry the day. There appears to be little hope that Rodriguez will limit Online Harms to what the government claims are its five primary censorship concerns: child sexual exploitation, terrorism recruitment, sharing intimate images without permission, hate speech, and content that incites violence. Each of these is already a criminal offence in Canada and each is already regulated by social media and other online companies, leading many to wonder why Rodriguez is so determined to pass legislation outlawing behaviours that are already outlawed.

The short answer appears to be that the move to double-ban these atrocious activities provides a beard that masks the legislation’s true intention: to crack down on opinions the government considers to be disinformation or misinformation. And that will be accomplished by creating a regulatory regime that will have opinions the government believes fall into those categories removed from the internet.

The key point in that, one alarmed source told me, will be an attempt to limit online commentary to only opinions that can be supported by facts. Some of you—many even—may think it’s just fine to deny flat-earthers, global warming skeptics, and anti-maskers a voice online. Yet allowing people to believe whatever they want to believe and express that belief should only be limited—as it is currently on social media—if and when it calls for genuine physical harm to be inflicted on others.

But the legislative wizards behind the curtain in the Prime Ministers’ Office don’t think that’s enough. There is a big question in their minds as to whether society should “tolerate these people,” as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested last fall.

Their level of authoritarian self-righteousness doesn’t stop at the limits defined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They are, I’m told, convinced that Canadians need to be protected from their own thoughts and beliefs. Because only Trudeau and those tasked with building his legacy know that which is right and that which is true and constitutes the common good. Only they can save you from yourselves. Only they can save democracy from the people.

Brace for impact.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an award winning journalist, and former vice-chair of the CRTC.
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