Conservatives Filibuster to Block All Witnesses and Study of Bill S-210

As the committee “study” of Bill S-210 comes to a close, it appears that witnesses and study in general have been barred.

Throughout the Bill C-11 (Online Streaming Act) and Bill C-18 (Online News Act) debates, the dismissal of expert testimony and evidence in both debates became one of the most aggravating things to witness. Digital first creators came forward for the Bill C-11 debate to engage in honest debate and offer insight to how they were able to harness the power of the internet to build careers and guide politicians away from ruinous provisions that would jeopardize their careers. In the Bill C-18 debate, online and independent news reporters offered honest insights into their business and tried to guide politicians away from ruinous provisions that would threaten their livelihoods.

The Liberals who were pushing those laws responded to both by repeatedly dismissing them, even going so far as to call for politically motivated “investigations” into anyone who would dare criticize their approach.

Independent experts were also routinely ignored. Anything that deviates from full throated praise for the Liberal’s approach was demonized as “shills for Big Tech”. The hostility towards expert opinion got so severe that experts had to begin their testimony by making it clear that their views are not for sale and that their views are strictly their own.

While the dismissal of evidence and expert opinion was especially frustrating, the push to move forward with both bills as-is and watching the forewarned consequences, at least as far as the Online News Act, come to fruition has proven to be dismaying as well. The consequences of the Online Streaming Act is still forthcoming thanks to massive CRTC delays in their consultation and implementation process.

Some partisans might look at all of the above and argue that the Conservative party will likely learn from these massive blunders in policy and process and be more transparent and open with their lawmaking. I personally always had my doubts on that and recent activity in the Bill S-210 (age verification bill) is showcasing just that.

Already, we’ve seen Conservative MPs say that efforts to protect privacy rights in Canada is “shocking” and “disgusting”. For them, anyone defending those rights are defending the “crime scene” of Pornhub and that everyone who is opposed to their approach should be ashamed of themselves. This despite the fact that the legislation goes far beyond Pornhub and that it puts highly sensitive personal information into the hands of the very same people behind the so-called “crime scene” while putting children in further danger on the web.

Undeterred by the attacks by Conservatives and those that support them on this initiative (including the NDP and the Bloc), digital rights organization, Open Media, have created a petition in a last ditch effort to defend the internet.

In the last week, the Conservative party has also been dismissing evidence and expert opinion in their own way: by preventing any study and witness testimony at all at committee. This was noted by Michael Geist:

Kurek continued – later supported by Conservative MP Michael Barrett – and made the Conservative strategy on Bill S-210 clear: filibuster the actual study of the bill and claim opponents are siding with pornography sites. Of course, a study of the bill would reveal that the actual bill raises serious risks of targeting general purpose search, social media, and chat sites. The bill is scheduled to be reported back to the House in early June, which means that a couple of more filibustered hearings would prevent any expert testimony. As a result, the bill might well be sent back unchanged with no substantive study and provisions that raise enormous privacy and freedom of expression risks intact.

Whether you agree or disagree with the bill – I obviously think it is needs significant changes – surely everyone can agree that proper study is in the public interest. The Conservatives’ support for the bill remains puzzling given that the actual bill – not the fictional “it’s just about Pornhub” version – runs counter to the party’s longstanding emphasis on Internet freedoms. Yet seeking to stop witness testimony is incredibly dangerous and makes a mockery of prior Internet regulation hearings on Bills C-11 and C-18 when Conservative MPs emphasized the need for more extensive witness testimony. They were right then and wrong now. Bill S-210 should be defeated, but before doing so, it demands proper study. Stop the filibuster and extend the hearings to ensure that children, freedom of expression, and privacy are all protected.

That filibuster continued this week as well:

At yesterday’s lengthy four-hour hearing, Conservative MP Garnett Genuis confirmed the filibuster, stating that the party wants the government to release a report involving the prison transfer of Paul Bernardo before it is willing to conduct the study on the bill.

I have no views on releasing the Bernardo report. What I do know is that Bill S-210 runs counter to the Conservatives’ longstanding support for freedom of expression online. Indeed, a bill that would require age verification for search and social media sites, create express website blocking of lawful content, and engage in facial scanning or facial recognition technologies mandated by government presents risks that cannot be ignored. Yet stopping witness testimony raises precisely these risks and makes a mockery of prior Internet regulation hearings on Bills C-11 and C-18 when Conservative MPs emphasized the need for more extensive witness testimony. Bill S-210 should be defeated, but before doing so, it demands proper study. The party should stop the filibuster and the committee should extend the hearings to ensure that children, freedom of expression, and privacy are all protected.

What we are witnessing is a repeat of the mistakes of the Online News Act and Online Streaming Act. Lawmakers pushing this legislation flatly rejected all evidence and expert testimony because it presented a risk to their own reality bubble of how the internet works. The Liberals actions were deplorable and made a mockery of the committee study process. The Conservatives, meanwhile, took things a step further by preventing evidence and expert testimony from being heard at all, knowing full well that actual hard evidence would present a threat to their legislative efforts. While it is a different approach, it is the same mistake being made.

As we know from the Online News Act, just because whatever fiction fabricated in lawmakers heads wins the political argument of the day, it doesn’t mean that the consequences of their legislative action would also be kept at bay. This was shown with the Online News Act that is continuing to create a trail of destruction in the news sector with closures, bankruptcies, slowdowns, and mass layoffs. Likewise, reality will come back to bite Canada once Bill S-210 with massive amounts of surveillance, data breaches, mass internet censorship, and children being put at further risk.

While there may be hope that this legislation gets challenged in court, that may not stop the chaos and destruction this legislation threatens to unleash in the online world in Canada. Some sites have already leaned towards just straight up blocking Canada altogether if this insane law is enforced onto their sites. If that is the reaction from larger websites, Canada will further isolate itself from the rest of the world, compounding the problems of being a technological laggard.

Drew Wilson on Mastodon, Twitter and Facebook.

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