If Justin Trudeau thought regulating the internet was difficult last year, just wait until he tries it after the ‘Freedom Convoy’

We all know there’s a third element stirring the pot in the vicious conflict that has pitted supporters of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” against the rest of us: social media.

It’s the lifeblood of communications between the protesters and their detractors alike — not just for arranging the next showdown but also amplifying their messages around the world, be they rational or extreme, in the name of justice or hate, true or untrue.

It was no surprise that when former U.S. president Donald Trump issued a statement on the Canadian protest today, he also took aim at “Facebook and Big Tech.” They’re as central in this culture war as the people on the front lines.

On Wednesday, just as the political temperature rose to a boiling point — as horn-honking protesters shut down central Ottawa and the Conservatives showed their leader the door — the Liberals dropped a piece of legislation into the mix, the first of three bills that aim to regulate the scope of social media and web giants in Canada.

It was a new version of the infamous C-10, which prompted so much division last spring and didn’t survive the election because of all the controversy it provoked amongst the Conservatives, who argued it infringed on freedom of speech.

The new version, C-11 is meant to address that criticism, says Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez.

But if the Liberals thought regulating the internet was difficult eight months ago, they’ve got another thing coming. Even if the Conservatives and Liberals can co-operate long enough to persuade the protesters armed with trucks to stand down for now (and that’s a big “if”), the disquieting discontent that underwrites the protests and is boiling hot beneath the surface in the House of Commons points to a rough ride for any legislation that dances around technology and how we communicate.

This week’s bill takes aim at online streaming platforms like Netflix, Crave and Disney Plus. The legislation would ask online streamers to meet the same standards and requirements as Canadian broadcasters, and also contribute to the creation of Canadian content.

“We want to make sure that our children, our future generations grow up as we did, having the chance to watch our stories and listen to our songs, to our Canadian songs,” Rodriguez says.

What’s not to like about that?

If the last iteration of the bill is any indication, the Official Opposition will find plenty. Last year, C-10 barely made it through the House and died in the Senate after it became a lightning rod for freedom-of-speech evangelists. They argued the Liberals were overzealous and overreaching, trying to shut down regular internet influencers and YouTubers.

This time, the Liberals say their new bill won’t do any of that. It will only take aim at commercial platforms, not individual users, Rodriguez says. Amateurs need not fear for regulation.

Still, the Conservatives have started down that road again, saying they will fight the legislation with all means available if their concerns about freedom of speech aren’t addressed. And indeed, internet policy guru Michael Geist has already raised serious concerns about the scope of the new bill and the amount of power it will give the broadcast regulator to decide how streamed content is treated.

Ideally, this could all be an important and rational debate if it were held in a vacuum. But context is everything right now.

There are two more pieces of legislation to come. Very soon, we’re told, the federal government will try to level the playing field between Big Tech and traditional media, forcing the web giants to pay for content. Ottawa is also part of a global effort to ramp up taxation of those same companies. And a third piece of legislation, cracking down on online hate and harms, is also in the works.

They’re tricky pieces of policy, trying to tread the line between protecting Canadian culture, small businesses and private citizens from the excesses of the free-for-all that is the web. A key report issued this week on consultations Ottawa conducted around how to control online harms would only recognize that it needs to be done — and pointed to the difficulties of “how.”

But the finer points of drafting good legislation are not what’s on the minds of those who have adopted freedom of speech for their battle cry in the streets of Ottawa and in Parliament.

This week has made clear that as a society, we are weary of the pandemic, we are fed up with restrictions and we are losing patience with one another. Social media has taken those feelings, exaggerated them and set them on fire at a time when we need to cool down.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Canadians from across the political spectrum quickly realized the need to support the vulnerable — those who would lose their jobs or their businesses or their health. We’ve disintegrated to the point where those common values have been lost — where people with disabilities and women in a local shelter can’t move safely, where health-care workers can’t get to work without a fight, where a homeless shelter becomes a target.

Freedom of speech is essential to our democracy, of course, but so is respect for our culture —if it lasts.

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