Letter From Anti-Hate Group Offside With Anti-Racism Groups Over Online Harms

A letter from an anti-hate group urged the government to push through online harms regulation. This despite anti-racism groups fearing it would further oppress them.

Tomorrow, the Canadian government will see the Speech from the Throne – a traditional moment that is supposed to showcase the next governments agenda. It also kicks off some of the first orders of business. Among the top priorities for the incoming government is a widely promised speech regulation bill. That speech regulation bill has been nearly universally condemned by a wide range of voices during the consultation process.

As the new government gets ready to kick off the next session, a report seemingly came out of nowhere apparently from an anti-hate group. That group, which bills itself as representing a wide array of different communities in Canada, is urging the Canadian government to move forward with the speech regulation bill. From CP24:

The recent consultation efforts have also seen the Liberals float the creation of a new government agency to tackle online harms.

But groups that have been consulted about the proposals fear problems with wording and the scope of any new legislation could see the issue lose its priority placement on the government’s to-do list.

The Coalition to Combat Online Hate, which includes Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Indigenous and Black organizations, has written to Justice Minister David Lametti and Rodriguez urging them to ensure that a bill regulating online hate and vitriol will have “swift passage” through parliament.

The letter says regulation is needed because “the social media industry cannot be trusted to regulate itself.”

“Now is the time to act. Every day, Canadians are exposed to a barrage of hateful content,” the letter reads, adding that youth and racialized Canadians face such content more often than others.

If you looked at the name of the organization and immediately thought, “who the heck is that?”, well, you aren’t alone. We’ve honestly never heard of them until today. So, we did some digging around and found their open letter. There really isn’t much to it at all. It says in part:

We are aware that the Government has committed to introduce legislation that would regulate online hate, and we write to you now to urge swift passage of this important legislation.

Now is the time to act.

Every day, Canadians are exposed to a barrage of hateful content. According to a recent Canadian Race Relations survey, 42 percent of Canadians have seen or experienced comments that incite violence online. More troubling, youth (aged 18 to 29) and racialized Canadians are almost three times more likely than others to have experienced online hate. Online hate can lead to real-world violence as were the cases recently in Christchurch, New Zealand, and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

We cannot afford to wait any longer.

Recent whistleblower testimony in the United States has demonstrated that the social media industry cannot be trusted to regulate itself. Social network providers understand how to make their platforms safer but will not enact necessary change without government regulation. Their record shows a consistent pattern of placing profits before the wellbeing of their users. It is up to Government to ensure that online spaces do not incite hatred.

There is a path forward. Protecting Canadians from online hate and upholding the right to free speech is not zero-sum issue. Carefully crafted legislation can do both.

We welcome the Government’s commitment to combat online hate and look forward to working with you to ensure that the forthcoming legislation becomes the new international standard to tackle online hate.

The letter was signed by the following organizations:

ACAO (African Canadian Association of Ottawa)
Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama`at Canada
Anglican Church of Canada
Armenian National Committee Of Canada
Bahá’í Community of Canada
British Columbia Assembly of First Nations
Canadian Rabbinic Caucus
Capital Pride
Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA)
Cordoba Centre for Civic Engagement and Leadership
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada
Federation of Black Canadians
Ghanaian-Canadian Associations of Ontario (GCAO)
Humura Association
Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada
M9 Médias
Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto
Mosaic Institute
Native Calgarian
South Asian Bar Association of Toronto
Ukrainian Canadian Congress
World Sikh Organization

More intriguingly, the letter admits this as well: “Established in spring 2020”. So, they are a very new organization that happened to be founded around the time the speech regulation was being actively debated. The letter doesn’t really cite any nuances to the legislation such as the issue of secret reports being made to law enforcement, site blocking, or other major problematic aspects of the legislation. It only suggests that the time for debate is over and the time to act is now even though there is overwhelming calls against this legislation. So, that also raises red flags for us.

As you know by now, the issues with the speech regulation bill isn’t just some clerical or grammatical issues that could open up a few small loopholes. The entire legislation is deeply flawed and problematic, causing a number of organizations and individuals to call for the complete scrapping of the legislation altogether. So, the problems of the proposed bill are huge.

For those keeping score here, anti-racism groups did speak out during the consultation process. We reported this back in October shortly after the consultation process was closed. The consultation response is signed by a much larger list of organizations and individuals and it highlighted numerous problems with the proposed legislation:

Particular aspects of concern regarding the proposed legislative framework from an anti-racism perspective include:

1. Incentivization of over-removal produced by: the short timeline for required response after content being flagged (24 hours); the obligation for online communication service providers (OCSPs) to take proactive measures to identify harmful content, including through use of automated systems (repeatedly shown susceptible to amplifying existing biases); vague definitions that will lead platforms to be over-inclusive in order to be “safe;” and significant financial penalties for non-compliance.

2. Conflation of very different types of online harms – for example, “hateful” or “terrorist” content with “child sexual exploitation” or “non-consensual sharing of intimate images” – under a single regulatory regime. This is particularly problematic given the existing deployment of categories of “hate speech” and “terrorist speech” to censor Black and Palestinian content online; abetted, in the Palestinian case, by efforts to institutionalize the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, widely critiqued for conflating criticisms of Israeli policy with antisemitism.

3. Increased information-sharing with law enforcement and security agencies regarding possibly harmful content. As law and technology scholar Michael Geist observes, this may “lead to the prospect of [artificial intelligence] identifying what it thinks is content caught by the law and generating a report to the RCMP” – likely intensifying the current state of over-policing and -surveillance of colonized and racialized communities.

4. Sweeping search powers for “inspectors” to verify compliance with the legislation, secret hearings, and new information-gathering powers for CSIS – allocating further police-like capacities to CSIS.

5. Absence of adequate transparency, accountability, and redress measures with no clear mechanisms for publicly assessing whether Internet companies are fulfilling their obligation to prevent discriminatory treatment in content removal and reporting to law enforcement and CSIS; the protection of companies from criminal and civil liability for notifications to law enforcement and CSIS made in “good faith”; and no requirement to restore content found to be wrongfully removed, deferring to Internet companies’ own community standards. As three UN Special Rapporteurs recently noted, “such terms of service or community standards do not reference human rights and related responsibilities, thereby creating the possibility of an ‘escape route’ from human rights oversight.”

According to Daphne Keller, Director of the Program on Platform Regulation at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, Canada’s proposal is “like a list of the worst ideas around the world – the ones human rights groups … have been fighting in the EU, India, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, and elsewhere.”

What’s troubling about all of this is just how instantly this seemingly unknown organization that was only recently formed got press coverage. What will be interesting is if this organization will get even more press coverage than the organization that expressed concerns about the legislation. As we earlier noted, the media is the only ones fully supporting this online harms proposal in the first place. After all, the media couldn’t find very many allies when it came to trying to pushing for this legislation in the first place. We are sending a media inquiry to the IJV for comment on this latest development.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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