Online Harms Delayed, Risks Blowing Past 100 Sitting Day Deadline

For once, something good is happening on the Liberals war on the open Internet. The online harms proposal is delayed.

With the Trudeau Liberal government in power, news surrounding the Internet has become simply one bad news story after another. A portion of the bad news was, at least, predictable. After all, the three pronged war on the open Internet was directly promised in the Liberal party platform (Part 1, Part 2). First is the social media censorship bill (Bill C-11) which tore up the headlines for a while now. This was followed up by the link tax (Bill C-18) which has been lighting up feeds in recent weeks.

For those keeping track, the question is, whatever became of the “online harms” proposal? After all, it was promised within 100 days of the Liberals taking office. The Liberal party platform specifically stated, “Introduce legislation within its first 100 days to combat serious forms of harmful online content”. Of course, re-reading it now, the question that comes to mind is what this specifically meant. Is it just 100 calendar days or 100 sitting days? If we are talking about 100 calendar days, then we are well past that deadline. However, if we are talking about 100 sitting days, then the deadline is actually September 23 which is a fair bit down the road yet – with the caveat of the large break of July and August.

Probably the keyword in the sentence is “its”. For us, that implies sitting days. After all, if the sentence meant calendar days, then you’d think that it would remove the words “its first” and just say “100 days”. It could be bad wording and they really meant 100 calendar days, but the wiggle room is there in the first place.

Still, that doesn’t answer the question of what the status of the online harms proposal is at this point. Amidst the flurry of developments in Canada, there was actually one development on the online harms proposal front. From CBC:

Multiple civil society groups have expressed reservations with the federal government’s proposed online harm legislation, which would force tech giants to take down flagged content within 24 hours, a new report by the Heritage Department says.

The report, released Thursday morning, says marginalized and racialized groups are particularly likely to be affected by the requirement to force tech companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, to quickly remove content that is flagged as offensive.

Following consultations with various community groups last summer the report said respondents believed the 24-hour requirement was flawed because it would give platforms an incentive to be overly vigilant and remove more content than necessary to avoid breaking the law.

“A significant majority of respondents asserted that the 24-hour requirement was systematically flawed,” the report says. “It would incentivize platforms to be over-vigilant and over-remove content, simply to avoid non-compliance.”

Last year, I responded to the so-called “consultation” in an effort to lend support to what amounts to protest submissions. After all, at the time, the “consultation” paper was little more than a notice saying that this is what the government is doing, now respond with overwhelming positive feedback so we can tick this box off. What few could have predicted was that this would be the style for the government moving forward with the other prongs on the Internet.

The reason why so few would have predicted that this would be the style for the other prongs on the Liberals war on the Internet was because the focus was largely on just how brutally bad the proposed online harms legislation actually was.

To name one example, for any website with a comments section, they must implement an approved flagging system. From there, the website must take down content deemed “harmful” within 24 hours. Failure to comply, regardless of the size of the website, would could mean penalties of $10 million or 3% of annual turnover – whichever is greater.

The risk of that alone is that the government basically threatened to shut down almost all but the largest websites across the Internet in Canada. Complying would be overly burdensome for smaller sites and medium and larger sites risked going bankrupt thanks to a single misstep in the moderation process. What Canadian website would want to operate under that kind of environment? None except for the craziest of developers.

Of course, that is just the tip of the iceberg. Just look at what is considered “harmful”. That aspect alone really screws over websites further who think they can formulate a plan to work with the law. While the proposal mentions 7 kinds of content considered “harmful” (such as CSAM content and racist content – yes, it’s all getting treated the same which is its own can of worms), the government is leaving a provision in place that can add to the definition at any time. So, what counts? Who knows? If a Conservative government takes power, they could very easily say that any content that promotes unions or environmental causes is considered “harmful”. Really, the sky is the limit, depending on who is in power.

Then, just to cap off on this insanity, there is also a provision that deals with websites in other countries. If a website operating in another country doesn’t comply, then the government can order ISPs to block the site. Yes, an appropriate response is, “the government is being an idiot now.” The risk is that we could see a “Great Firewall of Canada” where the only way Canadian’s can view the free and open Internet is through TOR and VPN services after. So, over top of completely neutering Internet innovation, but Canadian’s could end up being wiped clean off the Internet map altogether for operators outside of the country.

Indeed, considering how belligerent the government has been acting lately towards criticisms of any kind, it is, indeed, a surprise that the government is willing to go back to the drawing board. It probably marks the first time on the technology side of things that the government actually even remotely listened (or, at least, pretended to listen anyway) to Canadians instead of just attacking or ignoring them.

A more recent report suggests that the legislation is still months away. From Global News:

The government is still months away from introducing its promised online harms legislation after missing its self-imposed 100-day deadline in early February.

Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez shared the news on Wednesday as he announced a newly formed panel of experts who will advise his office as it drafts the new bill.

“We want to get this right — and you know what, together, we will get this right,” Rodriguez said.

However, getting it right will take far longer than the government had initially promised.

This is probably the first bit of good news fans of the Internet in Canada has had in a long time. The fact that the legislation is getting delayed, alone, represents a temporary reprieve. For us, the online harms proposal represented by the biggest threat to Freezenet. The social media censorship bill basically meant that our operations on sites like YouTube would probably never be successful. The link tax meant that it makes linking to Freezenet more expensive – despite Freezenet never having a hope of receiving one cent from it after. We don’t even want to think about the unintended consequences of that.

However, the online harms bill could mean that Freezenet would have to shut down unless we could find some kind of workaround to stay alive. It would have represented a life or death fight for us. Any website operating in Canada would equally face the same existential threat, not just us. Obviously, we are against all three pieces of legislation. Bill C-11 would screw over Canadian digital first creators on sites like TikTok and YouTube. It’s not an existential threat to us, but it is for them. They deserve a chance to be successful just like everyone else online.

While the situation is still dire for Canadians who believe in a free and open Internet, there is a silver lining to be found buried under the crush of bad news these days. Whether that is of marginal relief or represents cold comfort really depends on who you ask. Still, a delay is a delay and we’ll take any positive news we can get these days.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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