Canadian Government Attempted to Have News Article Deleted from Social Media

As the Canadian government attempts to exert more control over social media, the government attempted to delete a news article.

For the last couple of years, the Canadian government has been moving forward with policies to exert more control over the internet as a whole. As the debate intensified over Bill C-11, the Canadian government has characterized on multiple occasions that criticisms of the bill were just “misinformation”. While not all of the criticisms of the bill are actually based on fact (such as the charge that the bill removes content even though there is no mechanism in the bill itself for outright removal of content), there are plenty of concerns that are perfectly valid (such as the demotion of user generated content and picking winners and losers in the social media landscape by manipulating algorithms to surface government certified “Cancon”). Regardless of the criticism, however, the government has used a broad brush of painting everything critical by digital first creators as “misinformation”.

Indeed, these characterizations, on the surface, sounds like little more than petty politics and childish games on the part of the Canadian government. There is one major problem with this: the online harms proposal. The draft proposal said that content that is considered misinformation could be included in content that could be ordered taken down. In fact, if any anonymous user complains that the information is “harmful”, then they can flag it and order it be taken down within 24 hours. Should the owners of where that content was published fail to comply with that, they are on the hook for a $10 million fine. Little wonder why civil rights organizations are up in arms over this.

Already, in the span of two paragraphs, we’ve gone from “eye roll, stupid politics” to “yeah, that’s a problem.” These risks have been known by digital rights advocates for quite some time now. While they, and us for that matter, have been raising these points, major media outlets have been reluctant to really give these ideas much thought. Recently, however, that has changed.

The Canadian government has apparently attempted to delete a news article. At first, it was an attempt to take down the article directly from the site itself. Failing that, though, the government attempted to censor the news article by appealing to the large social media platforms to not only have the article deleted, but also restrict anyone from attempting to share that article on those platforms on top of it all. The news hit the Canadian Press:

OTTAWA — Newly released documents show that a federal government department asked Facebook and Twitter to delete a newspaper article that it felt contained errors — but both social-media giants denied the request.

The request to remove social-media posts that linked to an unspecified Toronto Sun article came from a director of communications on Sept. 27, 2021, according to information prepared by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Paul Knox, a professor emeritus at Toronto Metropolitan University’s school of journalism, said governments don’t have any business telling anybody what can be published where.

The government was “totally out of their lane on this one” and needs to apologize, he said.

“You can’t only have freedom of the press for people you approve of and people you consider to be right,” said Knox, who also sits on the Canadian issues committee for the Canadian Journalists For Free Expression, an organization that defends the rights of journalists.

He said that while publications can be held accountable for being wrong, it doesn’t entitle people to demand that something be removed from a platform.

“And the last people on Earth that would be justified in doing that would be entities of a government,” he said.

The news has been circulating in journalism circles and it seems that there is quite a bit of shock that this has even happened.

You have got to be kidding me. And these are the people who want the formal power to regulate the internet, via C-11, C-18 and the forthcoming “online harms” bill.

Request to remove newspaper article among Ottawa’s queries to social-media giants

This is precisely the kind of things digital rights organizations have been warning about for some time. It seems, however, that it took a government attempt to censor a news article before media talking heads started treating these things seriously.

While the Canadian Press was unable to get comment from the Toronto Sun, it seems that the author of that article decided to speak out about this issue himself. From the Toronto Sun:

In September 2021, I was in possession of a confidential draft document that was being circulated inside the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB).

In the draft, board chairman Richard Wex laid out a massive expansion of the reasons under which refugee claimants could be admitted to Canada. In effect, Wex was hoping to remove as many barriers as possible for refugees.

Of particular note were claims involving “intersectionality.” Intersectionality was defined as two or more of “race, religion, indigeneity, political beliefs, socioeconomic status, age, sexual orientation, culture, disability or immigration status” that “impact an individual’s lived experience of discrimination, marginalization or oppression.”

If Wex’s new criteria became IRB policy, refugees wouldn’t have to prove they faced torture or death if returned to their home countries. Nor would they have to meet the United Nation’s legal definition of a refugee.

The IRB asked my editors to correct or pull my column, which the editors courageously refused to do. When that route failed, we have now learned, the then director of communications for the IRB approached the big social media platforms to ask that they take down any posting of my column and prohibit users from linking to it.

Thankfully, Facebook and Twitter told the federal government to pound sand. My column continued to be shared despite being what the government considered dangerous “misinformation.”

This is a story because I had the confidential email outlining Wex’s proposal. And it must have been obvious to the government I had a copy from the portions I quoted. Nonetheless, they still tried to have it banned as misinformation because it was embarrassing to them. It revealed a policy change they didn’t want revealed, which is precisely why it had to be revealed and why the social media platforms should not have banned it.

Whether you agree or disagree with the criticisms about immigration policy is, at this point, besides the point. The bottom line is that the Canadian government has now made an attempt to take down a news article because it didn’t like it. While the mainstream media and myself probably don’t see eye to eye on a number of things at this point, it’s a very safe bet that many members of the mainstream press can agree with me on this: that the government crossed a line that should never be crossed. We are talking about the government trying to remove a news article not because it contained inaccuracies, but because it felt embarrassed about it. That is not a good enough reason to have an article removed.

It is embarrassing that it took an incident like this before threats like this could be taken seriously in the journalism sector, allow me to say, “Welcome to the party, pal. You are be in good company when it comes to people having serious reservations on how the government is handling internet related legislation.”

As for the Toronto Sun author, it seems that he later confused the online harms proposal with Bill C-11:

This also further points out why the Trudeau government’s impending Bill C-11 is so very, very dangerous to free speech and government accountability in this country.

Bill C-11 takes decisions about what is and isn’t “misinformation” out of the hands of the Big Tech platforms and gives them directly to appointees of the Liberal government.

Now imagine how much worse that censorship would be if it were taken away from the Silicon Valley giants and given directly to the CRTC or a government-appointed board for internet safety.

Bill C-11, which should receive royal assent within weeks, will actually empower of director of Internet regulation to remove legal content that he or she (or a board of advisors) deem to be too controversial.

I’m quite certain that had my refugee piece been written after C-11 instead of before, it would never has seen the light of day on the web.

There is no mention of removing content deemed “misinformation” in the text of the bill (go ahead, use CTRL+F on the text of the bill and you’ll only get one match that talked about empowering content production that tackles misinformation.) However, if you replace Bill C-11 in the article with “online harms proposal” (adjust timelines accordingly), then that would be an accurate statement.

Indeed, if the online harms proposal, as per the original “consultation” notice paper, were made law today, that article would never see the light of day. The publisher would be legally forced to take it down within 24 hour or face a $10 million fine. The platforms would also be forced to take that content down or face a similar fine. Should that article be reposted on an offshore website, the government would have the power to compel ISPs to block access to that entire website.

At the same time, some of the censorship apologists out there seems to think that such an action is perfectly acceptable. Let’s pretend that the article was factually incorrect. The government could have issued a statement saying that the article was inaccurate for reasons “x, y, and z”. Other outlets would then be well within their right to publish an article saying that the government refuted the charges made in that article. Even better is the outlets confirming the statements by the government with some fact checking. Afterwards, the article can ultimately be named and shamed for being bad. That timeline of events is perfectly fine has been a course of events that have happened many times over the last number of decades.

The problem is, that’s not what happened. Instead, the government tried to directly remove an article. When the government gets involved in this way, we are very quickly entering into dangerous territory of government censorship. They have to have an extremely good reason to do this. Based on what we know, the government didn’t have a good enough reason to take this action in this instance. We’re talking reasons like, “If this article continues to circulate, then people will be killed.” or “This article needs to be taken down because it contains information that would jeopardize an investigation that is ongoing.” Even then, a third party (say, a judge) could look at the facts afterwards and make a decision on whether or not that was the right call because there has to be a level of scrutiny even then.

At any rate, sure the source of the article at the centre of all of this isn’t the greatest. At the same time, unless something earth shattering is revealed about this case that completely changes everything, there is no doubt in our minds that the government overstepped their boundaries here. What’s worse is that the timing of all of this – specifically in regards to the government pushing a series of bills that creates a massive bureaucratic layer of control over the internet – couldn’t have been worse. Probably the silver lining in all of this is that it highlights for everyone why it’s so dangerous for the government to demand so much power over the free flow of information online.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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