Canada’s Signing of Recent UN Declaration Sparks Fears of Push for Online Harms Bill

Canada recently signed a UN declaration vowing to crack down on “misinformation”. Could Online Harms proposal be that far behind?

Recently, the UK passed their Online Safety Bill into law. The law brings in the disastrous age verification laws, the banning of effective encryption and security, and a crackdown of anything deemed to be “harmful” content – which could include the jailing of people who engage in online trolling. It is a nightmare scenario for the people in the UK. The problem for other countries is that when a bad internet law is passed in one country, it tends to spread like a global pandemic, infecting other governments into believing that cracking down on basic civil rights is a moral obligation among other things.

There have been many example of this throughout the years. This includes the highly destructive link tax laws spreading from Australia to Canada and the UK, the disastrous three strikes law for file-sharers spreading from France to the United States and South Korea, and the push to ban encryption spreading from the United States to other countries. Bad legal theories have long spread from one country to another, making the world worse and the ridiculousness of so-called “Online Harms” laws is no exception to this.

Canada has been mulling an online harms bill for a while. Earlier this year, we wrote a rather lengthy article explaining why the concept is an absolutely brutal concept. During the 2021 consultation, the concepts drew near universal condemnation from virtually every side including condemnation from anti-racism groups who forcefully pushed back against the proposal, pointing out that the proposal would lead to increased surveillance and suppression of minority groups by the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police).

In fact, the consultation was so heavily critical of the governments approach, the government worked hard to minimize the results and hide the responses from the public. The government knew that their proposal backfired spectacularly and the submissions were ultimately wrestled out of the government with an ATIP request. Not only did the government tried to hide the public response they received, but actively tried to filter out anyone opposed to the legislation as “non-allies“. In other words, the only responses the government was prepared to accept were responses that agreed with everything they said. The fact that they got so little support for their proposal may explain why the government blew way past their 100 day deadline in the process as they desperately seek credibility for their approach.

There are many reasons to be against this proposal. While the government will no doubt try and paint anyone opposed to the proposal as those who defend hate speech and harassment, there are very good reasons to be opposed to this. For us, the reasons are from a technological perspective.

In a nutshell, the legislation orders websites to implement a flagging system where any anonymous individual can flag anything they want as “harmful”. Not so bad at first, right? The caveat to that is that website owners who don’t respond to every complaint within 24 hours could receive a fine of $10 million or 4% of annual turnover, whichever is greater. What is deemed “harmful” is ultimately left up to the anonymous individual. If it’s “harmful” to them, then it is harmful, full stop. It doesn’t matter what that content even is in the first place. There is no threshold for how large a website has to be in order to be forced to comply with this. Ultimately, there is no reasonable way for a Canadian website to survive this.

What’s more, the government expects international, or “off shore” websites, to comply with this legislation. You might think that this would never work because the US tried to apply the DMCA to Swedish BitTorrent website, The Pirate Bay. So, why would the online harms law work in this case? Well, failure to comply with this law from a website operating outside of the Canadian borders would mean that the Canadian government can order Canadian ISPs to block access to those websites in the first place. As a result, the proposal would erect a sort of “Great Firewall of Canada”.

Passive defenders of the legislation might argue that this only applies to obvious nonsense peddlers. Websites like Freezenet don’t peddle things like anti-vax nonsense or obvious stupid conspiracy theories, so why should someone like us worry about something like this? The problem here is that the Canadian government has already built up years of history of calling anyone questioning their approach with the Online Streaming Act or the Online News Act as people who push misinformation – the same “misinformation” that last years reports suggest would be part of the Online Harms bill. When someone like us decides to point out, say, the obvious fact that platforms don’t depend on news links to keep their businesses afloat, the government generally deems this to be misinformation (despite this being a long established obvious fact). Now you see why this threatens to be a weapon against anyone critical of the government for any reason.

Recently, a report suggests that there may be renewed focus by the Canadian government to push the online harms proposal. According to the National Post, the Canadian government has signed a UN declaration to crack down on “misinformation”. From the report:

A new United Nations declaration, launched Wednesday by Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, says signatories will take steps to address online disinformation.

The 27 countries who have signed the document are promising to implement “necessary and appropriate measures, including legislation, to address information integrity and platform governance.” They will do so in a manner that “complies with international human rights law,” including freedom of opinion and expression, the document says.

Canada and the Netherlands began working on the initiative a year ago and launched the resulting Global Declaration on Information Integrity Online at the United Nations Wednesday. Signatories include Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Japan and South Korea, among others.

The move has sparked some to make reference to the online harms proposal. Peter Menzies, for instance, responded with this:

It’s coming …

Indeed, a lot of the focus is on Russia originating disinformation. The references to respecting human rights and freedom of expression are likely a response to the widespread condemnation that this approach also cracks down on freedom of expression, opening up a big opportunity to decide what is “truth” and what is “misinformation”. After all, a key component of democracy is the ability to speak your mind which includes the ability to question the government. After all, your ability to speak truth to power is an excellent measure for how healthy a democracy is in the first place.

While the hope is that this continues to not be a bill before the government – that it stays in the legislative wings and not become a piece of actual legislation. Otherwise, Canadians could be in for the fight of their democratic lives as a monstrosity like that starts to move forward through the legislative process. Otherwise, be prepared to have VPNs as part of your ability to connect to the open internet. Also, forget about having an online business of any kind at all in Canada because unless the bill changes a lot between the original proposal and whatever form the actual bill takes public form, then setting up an online business would not be feasible. If the Online News Act and Online Streaming Act is anything to go by, the government is unlikely to accept public input that deviates from their original intent, no matter how valid the criticisms are.

At any rate, this is a sign that the Canadian government still has interest in setting up a nuclear solution to the whole internet in Canada. Since the bill has yet to be tabled, we are starting to enter a point in time where running out of time before the next election could be a possibility. The next federal election is going to happen no later than October 20, 2025. At this point, there is still a decent amount of time to ram such a terrible bill through, but that time window is actually starting to close. Every week that goes by only increases the chance of such a bill dying on the order paper should it be tabled.

So, at this point, we can only hope the bill continues to take more time behind the scenes. Any further delay is a win for Canadian innovators and Canadian internet users. Any sign that the government is moving forward with this is a reason to worry. The above is definitely a sign that the government is still wanting to move forward with it and is, therefore, reason to worry. We’ll try and keep a watchful eye on any developments on this file as it’s a pretty important file to watch here.

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: