Ottawa faces blowback for plan to regulate internet

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, pictured here with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Rideau Hall on July 18, 2018, recently announced a pause on the legislation.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Newly released documents reveal Twitter Canada told government officials that a federal plan to create a new internet regulator with the power to block specific websites is comparable to drastic actions used in authoritarian countries like China, North Korea and Iran.

The letter, marked confidential, is among more than 1,000 pages of submissions to an online consultation the Liberal government launched in July, in order to gather opinions on its draft plan for curbing hate speech and other online harms. The documents show the wide-ranging blowback Ottawa received.

Another private letter, from the National Council of Canadian Muslims, warns that the government’s plans “could inadvertently result in one of the most significant assaults on marginalized and racialized communities in years.”

Twitter has never commented publicly on Ottawa’s online harms proposals, which the government recently said it will delay implementing while it conducts a new round of consultations. A spokesperson for Twitter Canada declined a request for comment on Thursday.

The social media giant’s criticism of the plan is contained in a Sept. 24, 2021, letter from Michele Austin, who was then Twitter Canada’s head of public policy and is currently the company’s public policy director for Canada and the United States. She provides a strongly worded seven-page critique.

Ms. Austin takes particular issue with the proposed creation of a Digital Safety Commissioner, who would have the power to block access to specific websites.

“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 to information online,” the letter says. It goes on to say that the plan “sacrifices freedom of expression to the creation of a government run system of surveillance of anyone who uses Twitter.”

The government’s proposals included options for users to flag potentially harmful content. Ms. Austin points to instances during last year’s federal election – which had taken place shortly before the letter was written – when partisans filed complaints about their opponents.

Her letter references a case in August, when a video posted by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland about then-Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s stand on privatized health care was labelled “manipulated media” by Twitter.

“‘Flagging’ will be used as a political tactic. As lived during the recent Canadian federal election, a general approach to flagging will result in censorship,” Ms. Austin wrote. “Throughout the election campaign, political parties and their officials tried to have content ‘flagged’ as ‘harmful’ in an effort to have it removed from public discourse or score political points.”

The government launched its online harms consultation just ahead of the 2021 federal election campaign. The consultation sought feedback on proposed legislation to combat various online abuses, including hate speech, terrorist content, content that incites violence, child abuse images and the non-consensual sharing of intimate images.

The Liberals were re-elected with a minority government in September after vowing to move ahead with the legislation within 100 days.

Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez recently announced a pause on that plan in order to allow for more consultations by a 12-member expert panel. Mr. Rodriguez’s press secretary Laura Scaffidi said Thursday that the new round of consultations shows the government “will take the time we need to get this right.”

While some groups that submitted comments in last year’s consultation made their views public, many submissions were kept private. The government has refused to release the documents voluntarily.

But University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist obtained the submissions through an access to information request and posted the documents online Thursday.

The federal government released a report in February summarizing the feedback it received. That report said the responses were largely negative.

Mr. Geist said in an e-mail to The Globe that the newly released documents show the criticism was more extensive than the summary report suggested.

He added that the level of secrecy related to the submissions was inappropriate, and that it contradicts the government’s stated commitment to transparency.

“Requiring an access to information request should not be the standard,” he said.

Criticism of the government’s proposals came from many sources, including internet service providers, privacy advocates and groups representing marginalized communities that the measures are supposed to help.

The documents include a four-page letter from the Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition in which the group warns the proposals could put the lives of sex workers at risk by causing excessive filtering of sex-related websites and limiting the workers’ ability to operate safely online.

“We urge you to slow this discussion down, and genuinely engage with sex workers about how this sort of knee-jerk, over-reaching policymaking will cost lives,” the group wrote.

Several of the responses took issue with a section of the proposal that would amend the CSIS Act to give Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, expanded warrant powers to quickly obtain basic subscriber information from private companies.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) wrote that it supports the general framework in the proposed legislation and that online hate poses an existential threat to Canadians. But it warned that it would likely have to publicly oppose the bill unless sections related to terrorist content are removed.

The council wrote that proposed wording related to forcing companies to notify law enforcement and CSIS about terrorist content risks “absurd consequences.” The letter says it “could mean that Canadian Muslims who talk about Palestine, Afghanistan, or stand in solidarity with diverse movements could be implicated. Clearly, this is unacceptable.”

NCCM CEO Mustafa Farooq said on Thursday that his organization welcomes the government’s recent decision to delay the plan in favour of more consultation.

“We’re at least hopeful that the process will result in something positive,” he said.

The documents show the plan received generally positive feedback from TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based company ByteDance Ltd.

“We agree with and support the main principles underlying the Proposal: a focus on systems and processes, a limited scope to define categories of illegal content, and the use of transparency reporting to measure success,” wrote Steve de Eyre, TikTok Canada’s director of public policy and government affairs. “This legislation has the potential to be both effective and future proofed, while escaping the pitfalls of encouraging blanket over-moderation.”

The documents also include dozens of e-mails from individuals, most of whom expressed strong opposition to the draft legislation owing to freedom of speech concerns.

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