Canadian Government Censorship Expands to More Than Just a Single News Article

While yesterdays story about the Canadian government trying to delete a news story was pretty explosive, it was far from an isolated incident.

Yesterday, I did a writeup on the explosive story of the Canadian government attempting to delete a news story on social media. Not only did the story offer yet another example on why the online harms proposal is so dangerous, but it also provided the journalism sector an actual tangible example of the government trying to suppress a news story they didn’t like. While some Conservatives, especially the person who wrote the original piece at the centre of the story, decided to act like an idiot and say that Bill C-11 enables this kind of censorship (it doesn’t), it did offer a clear example on why so many observers fear the online harms proposal in the first place.

One possible knee jerk reaction to all of this might be that this whole sorry affair was just an isolated incident. Some might well and truly think that the government isn’t actively running around on social media trying to take down anything they don’t like. Evidence that was recently highlighted, however, shows that the government is perfectly willing to take down content they don’t like. From Michael Geist:

The risks associated with the government’s online harms (or online safety) plans is not limited to Canadian Heritage’s credibility gap, which as I’ve recounted has included omitting key information in its public reports on consultations and shocking efforts to exclude contrary voices altogether. A new report, based on the government’s response to a Parliamentary Written Question from Conservative MP Dean Allison (Sessional Paper No. 8555-441-1219) raises new concerns about efforts to censor social media. The written question asked the government for “requests made by the government to social media companies to take down, edit, ban or change in any other way social media content, posts or accounts since January 1, 2020.”

The resulting report is stunning as government departments have in fact pressured the social media companies to remove news links and a range of lawful content including tweets that are said to contain “offensive language” or an “offensive reply.” The use of government power to censor social media posts or news links is exceptionally dangerous and crystallizes the fears of regulatory powers without the necessary due process and oversight that could lead to censorship of lawful content online.

In addition to targeting news links, various departments have pressured Twitter to remove tweets that do not appear to be unlawful. For example, the Public Health Agency of Canada pressured Twitter to remove many tweets it said contained “offensive language.”

Twitter typically declined to do so, but seeking to censor tweets based on offensive language is entirely inappropriate for any government which claims to be committed to freedom of expression. Industry Canada similarly sought to censor an “offensive reply” to a tweet on the Competition Bureau’s Fraud Prevention Month. Twitter again said no. A Twitter search points to this as the originating tweet. The remaining reply is a bit strange but certainly not reasonably described as offensive.

This data gives rise to several takeaways. First, while the government has embraced every opportunity to criticize big tech companies, when it came to content takedowns of lawful content, those companies at least seemed to understand the importance of freedom of expression and did not cave to government pressure. And make no mistake, the pressure to respond favourably to a government demand to remove content is significant. Indeed, consider the Canadian Heritage committee’s current fishing expedition hearings that demand executive appearances, internal documents, and some third party correspondence as retribution for opposing the government’s Bill C-18. A similar scenario could easily unfold as MPs perform for the cameras in demanding answers for why content identified by government departments wasn’t removed.

Third, it is difficult to separate the government’s willingness to censor social media posts with its broader Internet regulation agenda, including Bills C-11, C-18 and online harms. Seeking to remove news links, mean tweets and other content without due process and without any apparent illegality does not bode well for the development of Charter-compliant regulations. The government may see itself as a model for others, but its willingness to muscle social media companies in an effort to remove lawful content is the very worst kind of example that should not be welcome in a democracy that prioritizes freedom of expression.

Indeed, I’ve personally seen first hand the knee jerk reaction of this government to assume the worst out of me simply because I opposed something the government did. Last year, I wrote a tweet critical of Chris Bittle’s suggestion that the Hockey Canada sexual assault story was just “Conservative filibuster”. It was a perfectly reasonable position to take on my part: treating allegations of sexual assault seriously and saying that these issues should probably be dealt with sooner than debating Bill C-11. In response, Bittle blocked me (really charmer, isn’t he?). To be clear, of course, Bittle has done far worse then that throughout all of this.

The problem of the government censoring what it doesn’t like is, of course, a widespread problem and not tied to any one individual. After all, let’s face it, did the government really think that it was going to have a presence on Twitter and not expect someone using dirty language at it sooner or later? It’s not to say it’s right by any means, but this is Twitter we’re talking about. It’s not exactly the worlds friendliest place. As pointed out, the governments efforts to take down content that is awful, but lawful, is, indeed, cause for concern.

A perfectly reasonable concern in all of this is the fact that these efforts to take down content were made in an environment where the online harms proposal hasn’t even made it to the stage of being tabled. If the online harms proposal was actually law, that would only embolden government officials to take down content they don’t like. Even worse is the idea of Conservatives utilizing such a law to take down content they don’t like either. Should it become law, other political parties don’t even have to take power to use this brand new hammer. This is because any anonymous user could complain and potentially put a source on the hook for $10 million due to lack of compliance. As the saying goes, when you suddenly have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

At an rate, the actions by the government is allowing critics to rely less and less on theoretical scenarios and, rather, point to actual examples and say that the government would have no problem censoring what it doesn’t like. It bolsters their argument for why the online harms proposal is bad in the first place. Hopefully, the online harms proposal never makes it to law. Failing that, we can only hope that it is significantly reworked so that it doesn’t unleash an era of massive censorship in Canada. After all, a key element in a democracy is, in fact, freedom of expression. Does this country really want to lose that? It is what is on the line in all of this.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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