ATIP: Government Filtered Out Opponents of Online Harms Proposal as “Non-Allies”

The “consultation” of Canada’s online harms proposal is continuing to earn the title of being a fraudsultation.

The consultation surrounding Canada’s online harms proposal has been a fraud from the very beginning. As a result, we re-titled the process as a “fraudsultation” because the point of the whole process was not to solicit feedback from the public, but rather, to seek feedback that supported the government approach. Apparently, there were other consultations involved in this process. However, we caught wind of the major consultation back in August of 2021. The paper released to the public was basically a proposal for the law they were cooking up. Unsurprisingly, many observers and experts called the process a “consultation by notice”.

There were a number of things that was clear. If such a proposed law were actually made into law, few, if any, websites would be able to survive for long. The proposal demanded that websites put in place a government approved flagging system for content. That flagging system would allow anyone, anywhere, at any time, to “flag” content that is considered “harmful”. What is considered “harmful”? Literally anything. What’s worse is that websites would then have 24 hours to respond and take down the content.

So, what are the repercussions of failing to comply with such a flag within 24 hours? A fine of $10 million or a percentage of annual turnover, whichever is greater. This would be devastating to any website operating within Canada as it is impractical to comply with this. There is no differentiating size of website, meaning every Canadian website would be held to this same standard.

For websites that don’t operate within Canada, the Canadian government would demand all offshore websites to implement a similar system of flagging and taking down content. Websites that fail to comply with this would be faced with a nationwide ISP level blocking order. So, a system that is on par with the Great Firewall of China to boot.

So, for those who want to oversimplify this idea as just a plan to combat online hate, that is among the very real reasons why sane people would be opposed to this plan. Depending on implementation, Freezenet could very easily be forced to shut down as a result – a website that has nothing to do with the spread of hate speech, violent extremism, CSAM content, and other kinds of deplorable content.

Naturally, since the consultation was open to anyone, we were more than happy to take the necessary step to survive and respond to the consultation. In light of the terrible way the Canadian government conducted itself through the consultation process, it was more of a protest against what the government was doing.

As it turns out, we weren’t the only ones to hold that view.

Many others flooded the consultation process with their own responses. They came from all perspectives and walks of life. From experts to business leaders to digital rights organizations to anti-hate groups, it seemed that almost everyone had one thing in common: to protest this process and the governments push.

Today, we are learning that our comments, along with countless experts and organizations, may have been filtered out entirely from the process for the crime of being a “non-ally”. These revelations came from an ATIP request filed by a National Post (caution: website partially broken for some readers, reader mode may be advised) journalist:

Back in April, Canadian Heritage ran online consultations for a future “National Action Plan on Combatting Hate” that could introduce anti-hate laws and curb freedom of expression. While the department publicly encouraged “every person in Canada” to participate in a survey about what this plan should include, email records show that people were screened out if they believed that an anti-hate plan wasn’t needed at all. 

The “National Action Plan on Combatting Hate” doesn’t exist yet. Whenever it is released, you may see ministers on the culture portfolio boast of the public consultations that helped shape it. If that happens, don’t take them at their word.

Canadian Heritage didn’t really consult the public on this matter — it consulted anyone who agreed with the Liberal platform point to create a National Action Plan on Combatting Hate. It’s yet another example of a government department being used to effect partisan goals and manufacture consent for something the public might not actually want.

Emails obtained in a completed access to information request in July, and which were made available to the Post in December, indicate that this screening question was added early in the survey period, after department researchers noticed a growing number of responses weren’t supportive of a “National Action Plan on Combatting Hate” at all. 

“We are starting to see an increase in the number of people responding to the National Action Plan on Combatting Hate Consultation Survey that feel combatting hate should not be a priority for the Government of Canada,” a government researcher noted in an email to his director on April 6, 2022.  

“As our primary target audience for this survey are people that believe combatting hate should be a priority for the Government of Canada, the inclusion of this other group in our data poses a problem for our analysis … A simple solution would be to add a question at the beginning of the survey that would easily identify these individuals in our dataset.”

Meanwhile, the survey homepage stated that all Canadians were encouraged to give feedback. 

By April 11, emails indicate that negative responses were flooding in and that a screening question had been added. “We think that 75 per cent-80 per cent of these responses (since last night) are from non-allies,” the researcher wrote to his director. “A big chunk of the remaining 20 per cent-25 per cent are from a GoC IP address.” 

It’s unclear if all of the responses from “non-allies” were screened out, but another email by a director that day showed that some were: “That screening question is being used, and it has saved us well over 500 cases that should not have been included in the final analysis (for the first pass). So it is helping a lot.”

It’s off-putting that a public servant referred to other citizens as “non-allies” — their job is to serve the public in general, not just the subset of individuals with whom they agree politically. It’s also notable that a large number of “good” responses seemed to come from government staff, at least on April 11. It was a biased sample. 

This is not entirely surprising given that by December of 2021, the Trudeau government was pushing forward with the online harms proposal regardless of how the public responded. By that point, it was very obvious that the consultation process was nothing more than a box ticking exercise and not a serious attempt to solicit public feedback about their proposal.

One critical problem with the governments attitude towards this whole process is that only people who are interested in combating hate are considered a ‘valid’ respondent. The problem with that is that there are numerous other stakeholders. Website owners, average citizens, digital right and free speech advocates are very much valid stakeholders in all of this. Filtering out website owners in this process is like filtering out restaurant owners in a consultation about the safety of food when all you want are people who are interested in keeping mould out of bread prior to consumption. You’re intentionally getting a highly incomplete data set that does no one any favours. It’s completely senseless.

Of course, this insane drive to only seek out those “loyal” to whatever cause the government has in mind is nothing new. After all, we saw this throughout the House of Commons committee process when Bill C-11 was brought up. Anyone who wasn’t giving full throat support for the legislation and calling for it’s “speedy passage” was someone to openly attack. This happened during a committee process where digital first creator, Darcy Michael, was openly attacked by notorious Liberal MP, Chris Bittle. That was followed up by Michael being harassed on social media after and even led to University Law Professor, Michael Geist, being openly attacked as well for the crime of being critical of the bill.

Obviously, digital first creators all had very real reason to be against the bill at the time as it represented a critical threat to their livelihoods. However, for the Liberal government, what mattered is whether they were loyal to the party’s cause. Anyone who wasn’t an “ally” was going to get openly attacked and shut down. There is no room for nuance or any actual debate on the matter in the first place. No matter what, if you didn’t support the Liberal agenda, you were labelled as something like a Conservative hack that supports constant obstruction. For the Liberal government, there was nothing wrong with the bill no matter what was said.

Probably the most disturbing is the fact that government IP addresses throughout these processes were part of this and were the only respondents that were supportive of the governments agenda. It seems quite clear that the government has been trying to give itself a head start in trying to pretend that their agenda had widespread support. It does leave the question open as to whether the government was in the process of stacking the deck throughout it all.

At any rate, what was also clear was that the government was taken aback by just how many people responded to the process. This resulted in delays as the government tried to refocus on what strategy to take. The process of stacking the deck was an abysmal failure because there were just way too many responses critical of the legislation.

The latest development suggests that the government isn’t all that interest in changing course with the legislation. Instead, they want to eventually put together a process that had a result that was satisfactory for the government to move forward with this potentially disastrous legislation. The idea appears to be to manufacture consent so they can point to that result and say that Canadians support their effort. Right now, it appears that they don’t have that result yet and they will keep trying until they do. After all, in their minds, there’s nothing wrong with their legislative approach. They are just seeking the public to finally cooperate with their ideas first.

(Via @MGeist)

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: