Dangerous territory

Any time governments rush in to limit speech, a free citizenry should be wary.

Such is the case with the new Online Harms Act, Bill C-63. That bill deals with hateful online content, the wholly inappropriate activity of preying on children whether to bully, encourage self-harm or the sharing of intimate content. Canadians would have little trouble supporting efforts to keep children safe, but the proposed act has more tentacles than that.

Along with these dastardly deeds against innocent youth, the proposed bill will target hateful online content. 

Material posted online to denigrate a group or culture, content that foments hatred or in the direst of situations, content that manifests itself in terrorist-type activities, would result in hefty financial penalties or imprisonment. Even that phraseology might be appealing to some, but it opens the door to interpretations we believe are best left to the judiciary than a body like the Canadian Human Rights Commission. 

A few weeks back, a 23-year-old London man was convicted of murdering four members of a Muslim family. His actions were deemed by the court to be an act of terrorism. 

In her statement, Superior Court Justice Renee Pomerance noted, “It is too simplistic to draw a straight line of causation between the offender’s actions and what he read on the internet [but] the offender drew much of his rage from internet sources, which he repeatedly accessed in the days and moments leading up to the attack. The tentacles of hate can reach a broad audience when they are merely a click away.” 

Such a statement amply demonstrates the need for legislation, but is Bill C-63 the panacea it is proposed to be? We think not. The solution is far more obvious.

A publisher friend often jokes our industry should run a newspaper ad campaign saying “sue us, because you can.” The point being made is publications must follow certain standards or risk being sued for libel. 

The law is a bit complicated, but basically we cannot print lies or defame people.

Why is it then that online entities and social media companies can publish conspiracies, falsehoods and manufacture distrust with impunity?

We have noted this numerous times over the years but a law in the United States, known as Section 230, provides immunity from liability for providers and users on an “interactive computer service” who publish information provided by third-party users. 

For greater clarity: no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

Unfortunately, Canada must accept this law as its own, under NAFTA, currently known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). 

Efforts in the United States to remove this immunity provision and hold tech giants accountable for their choice of what appears on the internet are underway. If Section 230 were rescinded, the majority of objectives under Bill C-63 would be addressed.

Recourse would flow through the courts, avoiding the need for faceless tribunals and commissions deciding if what Canadians write or say is worthy of jail time or a fine.

We find it passing strange that parliamentarians can’t see past the obvious on this issue. Peddlers of falsehoods and platforms that give oxygen to hate and vitriol need to be made accountable. 

It really is that simple.