Rest of Online Harms Submissions Wrestled Out of Government Via ATIP

A vast majority of the online harms submissions are secret no more. An ATIP request has brought them into the light.

Last year, the Canadian government conducted a so-called “consultation” with respect to its third prong on their war on the open Internet: online harms. It wasn’t so much of a consultation as it was a “this is the law we are proposing, now shower us with glory with coming up with a fantastic solution”. As such, it was described by many as a “consultation by notice” for pretty much all the right reasons.

This, of course, changed the dynamic of the consultation. Many rightfully felt that the government had already made up its mind on what the online harms proposal was going to look like. So, instead of seeing it as a serious attempt to garner public feedback, the consultation process was, instead, widely seen as a method of protesting the proposal. Since the opportunity presented itself, Freezenet did not hesitate and submitted a response to the consultation. At the time, we felt that it was important to be public with our protest. We could later point to that submission and said that we did, in fact, told the government to go f*** themselves with their proposal if things went as sideways as we were fearing.

As it turned out, many others felt similarly to how we felt about the consultation process. Multiple organizations pointed out how the consultation process was not a serious attempt to garner public feedback given how political parties put the online harms proposal directly in their party platforms. Further, the consultation process was held during an election. That was seen by some as a way of trying to reduce the number of submissions and let the headlines distract the rest of Canada. By the time we saw every submission, it became evident that very few supported the online harms proposal.

The end result was that the government eventually conceded that it probably should delay its proposal while it tried to hammer something else out. Of course, while it seemed as though the submissions did have an impact on the governments direction after all, one lingering problem persisted: what did the rest of the consultation submissions look like? The government insisted that it contained information that could be sensitive to business interests. So, they tried to effectively shroud those submissions under a veil of secrecy.

Well, that secrecy is largely ending thanks to an ATIP (Access to Information and Privacy act) request. The request was made shortly after the consultation deadline passed. After multiple months of waiting, the results came in:

There are several key takeaways from the broader package of consultation submissions.

First, the government’s determination to keep the consultations submissions secret until compelled to disclose them by law eviscerates its claims to support open, transparent government. There is simply no good reason to use secrecy as the default for a government consultation. While officials claimed that submissions “may contain confidential business information”, the actual results demonstrate the argument had little merit. Indeed, the government could have used openness as a default and redacted any confidential information as needed. A government that supports openness should not be forced to disclose information from a public consultation only under threat of failing to comply with its own access to information laws.

Second, the participation of the Internet platforms was more extensive than previously disclosed. While Google released its submission, there were also submissions from the Business Software Alliance, Microsoft, Pinterest, TikTok, and Twitter. Further, in addition to TekSavvy and Tucows, the large Canadian telecom companies (Bell, Rogers, Telus, Cogeco, Quebecor and Shaw) provided a joint submission. These submissions contain important data that should be publicly available, not hidden by the government. For example, TikTok reported that in the first quarter of 2021, content that violated its community guidelines accounted for less than 1% of all video and that 91.3% of the videos it removed were identified and removed even before a user reported them. Other notable submissions included the CBC, which argued for a special recognition of threats to journalists as content that incites violence and hate speech, and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, which called months ago for the removal of Russia Today from Canadian broadcast systems.

Third, the criticism of the government’s plans were even more widespread than previously revealed. Indeed, reviewing the submissions uncovers very few supportive comments of the government’s online harms from either organizations or the hundreds of individual submissions. For example, the big Canadian telecom companies warned that the proposal could disincentive investments in 5G networks and opposed disclosing basic subscriber information without judicial authorization. Their submission – along with others in the sector – reinforces how inexplicable and damaging it is that Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne has seemingly abandoned digital and Internet policy. Vesting responsibility in Canadian Heritage (what does Canadian Heritage have to do with online harms anyway) has been disastrous for the development of balanced, effective digital policies.

We also happen to have a full copy of the submissions, so we can also examine this. It’s worth noting that this is a 1.3GB PDF file weighing in at 1,162 pages. Just opening the file and starting to read it can be quite daunting. A small part of us wonders which low level government clerk drew the short straw and had to gather these files from who knows how convoluted of a file storage system employed to store these in the first place. What’s more is that it’s basically a series of pictures of the documents in question. Since the file is so large, we won’t be uploading it onto the site directly because we’d rather not risk the servers exploding at some point.

Either way, it’s hard to disagree with the assessments here. Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, did get elected on the promise of an open and transparent government. This in response to the notoriously secretive Conservative government helmed by then Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. The fact that this continues the secrecy by default habits represents a complete affront to those promises. It really shouldn’t have taken an ATIP request to get something as basic as submissions to an open consultation.

Still, it is striking to see that the submissions that were publicly available ended up being a representative sampling of the much larger data set. A vast majority of submissions were, in fact, opposed to the online harms proposal. Some were partially supportive, but with caveats. Either way, the government got little to no support for their proposal in the first place. One wonders if the government hit the brakes on this proposal because of the submissions or the number of multinational corporations basically showing up via their lobbyists to tell them, “don’t – you – even – dare move that proposal forward”.

It’s worth emphasizing that few are opposed to stopping harmful content. It’s almost exclusively the proposed implementation that drew the backlash. 24 hour take down requirements that would’ve all but eliminated any resistance to a “shoot first, ask questions later” policy that would have been forced into place by those running these sites in the first place.

It’s not even close to content being clear and cut dry harmful or not. You could have some weirdo’s being sarcastic. In some instances, tempers flare and comments cross the line even though the users in question had no intention of following through on whatever was said. So, moderating such content was always going to take time and nuance to what was going to be said would have to be taken into account in a reasonable scenario. 24 hour take down requirements would have made any effort to maintain a semblance of sanity impossible – big website or small.

What’s more is the penalties of $10 million or 3% of annual turnover being thrown in as well represented a “one-size-fits-all” approach that was wholly inappropriate. Such a high penalty meant that all smaller websites would have been wiped out completely under threat of bankruptcy – whether by an actual complaint or voluntarily as the risk would have been too high to keep going.

Further, anyone who thinks that there is some magic bullet that solves all of these problems is only kidding themselves. Few even like to see vile comments online from total jerks. Trying to solve such complex problems is going to take a lot. This online harms proposal would have made things substantially worse.

All of this isn’t even getting into the impacts this would have had for everyone involved. Whether it was minority groups being further marginalized from society or whole online communities potentially getting ripped apart, the damage this proposal would’ve had was potentially quite immense.

While we don’t know what the governments new approach is going to be, we do know that they are heading back to the drawing board. One can only hope that this really is the last we see of this horrifically bad idea, but time will only tell at this point.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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