A panel of experts that will make recommendations to the government on how to curtail “online harms” through legislation was revealed on March 30 by Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez.
“The internet has allowed for more mis- and disinformation, more polarization than ever before, and we’re much more likely to be exposed to and hurt by unacceptable hateful content,” said Rodriguez in a press conference.
The government’s previous attempt to regulate online communications relating to hate speech, Bill C-36, died when the last Parliament was dissolved. The panel of experts will now provide advice on how to frame the new legislation.
Rodriguez said that based on consultations held last year to solicit Canadians’ views on the subject, “Canadians want the government to take action by passing laws to address harmful online content.”
He said that’s especially the case “when it comes to standing up for the communities who suffer the most from this harmful content online, such as racialized Canadians, LGBTQ+ communities, and religious minorities.”
Some of the findings from the government’s consultations were published in a Feb. 3 report “What We Heard: The Government’s proposed approach to address harmful content online.” The report doesn’t provide the raw data that its conclusion is based on, and says the “majority” support the government regulating content online.
The report notes that many respondents “cautioned against opening up the categories of harmful content to speech that, though harmful, would nevertheless be lawful.”
“Concerned stakeholders expressed that requiring the removal of speech that would otherwise be legal would raise risks of undermining access to information, limiting Charter rights, namely the freedom of expression, and restricting the exchange of ideas and viewpoints that are necessary in a democratic society.”
Focus-group research conducted by the Privy Council Office last year found that most Canadians did not want the federal government to regulate the internet.
“Most participants rejected the idea of placing limits on or regulating what is said online,” said the report published in February 2021. “They generally favoured an environment in which free speech is promoted even if that meant offensive comments or material may appear online.”
The report also noted subjects’ concerns over “who would make the decisions as to what is or is not allowed” and that they “viewed this as a step toward censorship.”
In their previous Bill C-36, the Liberals’ had identified five types of online content as of particular concern: hate speech, child exploitation, the sharing of non-consensual images, incitements to violence, and terrorism. Some critics have pointed out that Canada already has laws against hate speech as well as terrorist financing, child pornography and obscenity.
A review of the panel of 12 experts shows they mostly share the government’s ideology on different issues such as COVID-19 measures, advocating for more vaccine mandates, labelling alternative viewpoints “conspiracies,” and criticizing the recent freedom-themed protests.
Some of the panel members already work for entities that are financed by the federal government, such as Ghayda Hassan of the Canada Practitioners Network for the Prevention of Radicalization and Extremist Violence (CPN-PREV), or Bernie Farber of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
Farber was recently criticized for saying on Twitter that an anti-semitic flyer had been found on the site of the Ottawa Freedom Convoy protest, whereas it was pointed out the image of the flyer related to another event in the United States two weeks earlier.
Other panel experts like Pierre Trudel, a law professor at Université de Montréal, has tweeted in favour of the government’s Bill C-11 which seeks to regulate internet content and impose on it a progressive framework, which some critics say will amount to censorship.
Among many other things, Bill C-11 says that the “Canadian broadcasting system should serve the needs and interests of all Canadians, including Canadians from racialized communities and Canadians of diverse ethnocultural backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, abilities and disabilities, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and ages.”
“The Trudeau government is throwing its cloak over the online world by granting the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) authority over the global internet and, likely, adding a second regulator to squelch Canadian speech it deems problematic,” wrote Peter Menzies, a former vice-chair of the CRTC, wrote in a column published in The Epoch Times.
The government is also seeking to act against child exploitation online with the bill that will be informed by the expert panel.
Lianna McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, is the only panel expert specialized in that field.
Other panel members include Amarnath Amarasingam, Queens University professor specializing in terrorism and extremism; Chanae Parsons, a community and youth engagement specialist; David Morin, Université de Sherbrooke political science professor; Emily Laidlaw, University of Calgary law professor; Heidi Tworek, UBC professor in the departments of public policy and history; Signa A. Daum Shanks, University of Ottawa law professor; Taylor Owen, McGill University media professor; and Vivek Krishnamurthy, University of Ottawa law professor.
The advisory panel will hold nine workshops to discuss the framework for “online safety” and also discuss with online platforms, said Heritage Canada in a statement. Non-attributed summaries of discussions will be made available, says the department.
Rodriguez said all the meetings have to be held in the next two months to work on the bill “as soon as possible.”