Reasons to Believe the Conservative Party is No Guardian of Free Speech Despite Bill C-11 Opposition

With the Conservatives opposing Bill C-11, it’s easy to see them as a guardian of free speech. Drew Wilson believes otherwise, though.

One thing that has been consistent throughout the Bill C-11 debates is that the Conservative Party has been opposed to the legislation for the longest. Indeed, when the party stepped up to be the opposition to the legislation, the move was surprising to me. In fact, it was just as surprising to me that the Conservatives were opposed to as the NDP were throwing their support behind the legislation. This is given the history of politics which I have personally covered since 2005 – which is to say, a really long time.

Indeed, during the Paul Martin Liberal government, I remember their efforts to bring in bad copyright reform or their lawful access legislation (warrantless wiretapping). At the time, even the Royal Canadian Air Farce made fun of warrantless wiretapping, saying that it is the only thing they can think of to keep Liberals from breaking the law. Some honestly believed that the only real solution was to kick the Liberal party out of power just to put a stop to the madness at the time.

At the time, I remember thinking how little I knew about the Conservative party position on these issues. So much about the politics was focused on the numerous scandals of the Liberal party. It left very little room for anything else to be debated. Some, however, believed that the end of Liberal party rule meant the end of all of these bad bills, however.

So, when the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper rule rose to power, there was certainly hope that such bad laws would be a thing of the past and we’d find out how the Conservative party would handle the internet and technology profiles. What ended up happening was the Harper Conservatives practically copied the two bad bills and tabled them as-is. Some expressed outrage about them doing this and even went so far as to call it a “betrayal”. I personally had the mind to be a lot more cautious with what to expect simply because, for me, there were just too many unknowns. While some were taken aback by my cautious attitude towards the situation, those feelings evaporated overnight when the bills were tables.

As time wore on, Harper rule just kept getting worse and worse. You had Heritage Minister’s avoiding the public (even hanging up on reporters) over the copyright reform legislation, you had a Public Safety Minister defending warrantless wiretapping as ‘you are either with us or with the child pornographers’. Other topics in the realm of politics were a complete disaster too. You had losing the seat at the UN Security Council, the science book burning scandal, and even efforts to label environmentalists as “eco-terrorists”. By that point, Canadians had enough and voted the party out of power.

To be fair, there was one peculiarity that did happen along the way. That was a major pivot to copyright reform. Under the explanation that everyone had ‘a little water in their wine’, the Conservatives tabled and passed copyright reform that they seemingly thought was somewhere in the middle of it all. For those that believe in digital rights, they got a low level limit for file-sharing fines – something reasonably close to a fine that is on the level of the “offence”. For corporate lobbyists, they got their anti-circumvention laws which would inflict widespread damage to those trying to preserve and archive material as well as infringe on a users right to backup content. It was a moment the government basically gave up and tabled and passed “something” – and no one was really happy about it.

NDP, for their part, was against all of this. They were against the lawful access legislation and against copyright reform written by the major foreign record labels and movie studios. As a result, thanks in large part to Charlie Angus becoming a champion of digital rights as a result, they got a lot of credibility that the party actually had a clue. In my talking to the Green Party, there was definitely that collective confusion as to what copyright reform and warrantless wiretapping even was, though gradually over the years, the internal communications gradually got smarter about these topics.

Of course, fast forward to “sunny ways” and the Trudeau Liberal government, there was this sense that the Liberal parties learned their lessons of the past and had greatly changed. There were promises to put forward a digital strategy to help bolster Canada’s role in the world of internet undertakings as well as defending network neutrality. For a brief period of time, the concept of the “reformed Liberal” was quite believable. Then, as quickly as that concept came to be, the Liberals fell back into their old corrupt ways.

The assault on the overall internet, however, was much more sophisticated than before. Rather than just letting millionaires sue everyone willy-nilly, the government was going to task regulators to control speech in the most intrusive ways possible. This was through the social media censorship bill, the link tax legislation, and the even more disastrous online harm proposal. We have shifted from corporations attacking individuals regardless of guilt to attacking the very core of what makes the internet function. The only real thing that was missing in all of this was another volley of anti-encryption laws so digital rights advocates can shout “Yahtzee” behind their tears.

Of course, in reading all of this, you can see why it was so surprising that the Conservative party was interested in fighting Bill C-11 while the NDP was all for internet censorship. You can almost cue the “crazy pills” meme at this point.

Throughout this timeline, 2 years is a blink in the eye. However, 2 years feels a heck of a lot longer when you are currently living through it. Because of the opposition towards Bill C-11, some people legitimately feel that the Conservative party is the party that is all for free speech and being the party to trust when it comes to defending basic civil liberties on the Internet. This is a relatively new phenomenon for a party that has a history of being the exact opposite of this.

For now, it is believable that they are very much against Bill C-11. It’s also believable that they wouldn’t introduce such legislation should they ever come into power. The problem here are the undercurrents beneath the surface – and they are worrying to say the least.

One of the most obvious examples is this war on so-called “woke” culture. Obviously, woke is a conservative invented term which ultimately boils down to being respectful of other people regardless of how different they are to you and judging people based on their character. If you believe in free speech, this should be a massive warning flag.

It’s always one thing to believe in free speech, but to actually follow through with it is so often an entirely different thing. Thanks to the People’s Party of Canada, we actually have a glimpse of what free speech really means for segments of the conservative movement. That basically boils down to “free speech for me, but not for thee”. During the last election, the People’s Party of Canada openly stated in their platform that they would take down Bill C-11. In its place, they would target environmentalists and take down anything that they don’t agree with.

This is fundamentally problematic towards the principles of free speech. If free speech really means “speech I agree with”, then we are not talking about actual free speech. The real question, as a result, is if we would be that much better off with speech only conservatives would agree with as opposed to only allowing speech that is made by entrenched corporate interests. To me, the answer is that we wouldn’t really be that much better off at all.

Another problematic issue bubbling beneath the surface is this longstanding demand that the most extreme viewpoints must be free of consequences of that speech. We also caught a glimpse of that when Gab’s founder handed information over to the FBI about one if their users calling for the killing of FBI agents and how the user base reacted. That was corroborated with the so-called freedom convoy when the convoy called for the violent overthrow of the government, the many crimes that were committed throughout the occupation, and the reaction of how “they did nothing wrong” (despite it being painfully obvious that crimes were, in fact, committed).

Of course, there is an online equivalent to this demand that conservatives be free of the consequences of their speech. This is loosely tied with this so-called “cancel culture” that they so frequently make up. What this push invariably concludes with is a ban on private companies moderating and curating content that appears on their platform. This has already happened in the US with the various moderation ban bills from states like Texas and Florida.

While I am familiar with the fact that compelled speech violates the US Constitution, I am, admittedly, less familiar with the status of compelled speech in Canada. Is there a clear cut and dried legal way of saying that compelled speech in Canada is against the law or is there some convoluted unclear explanation of how speech works in Canada. I’m not entirely sure at this stage. Simply put, this topic hasn’t truly cropped up in Canada to date. Still, it’s hard to visualize a scenario where such government demands would go unchallenged in the courts, though.

It is these undercurrents from within the conservative movement within Canada that has me conclude that if you think the Conservative party of Canada would be better stewards of expression online, I would think twice. Not only have we been here before when the Harper Conservatives took over and made a mess of everything, but you also have many examples and hints as to where the Conservative party could very easily take the country if given the chance.

To be clear, Bill C-11 is a disaster. Combined with Bill C-18 and online harms, it would ensure that Canada will never be innovative in the online space ever again. The laws would be that prohibitive to innovation. The only real innovation that could possibly come from it are clever ways to circumvent such laws in the end. Beyond that, we stand to see whole tax paying industries wiped clean off the map because of these policies.

At the same time, if you believe that a Conservative party will swoop in to save the day and make Canada a safe haven for speech if given the chance, then I have a bridge to sell you. It would take a lot of convincing and proof that would say otherwise, but for the moment, I have no reason to believe otherwise that this is the current political state we are seeing in Canada. I always believed that issues of free speech and innovation online is a non-partisan issue. It sucks that the reason its a non-partisan issue is because all the biggest parties are so bad about these issues.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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