What Happened to Chrystia Freeland is Problematic. Burning Down Whole Internet is Not a Solution

A video of Chrystia Freeland being harassed by a right winger has some suggesting to move forward with online harms legislation.

A video widely circulating mainstream Canadian media showed deputy Prime Minister, Chrystia Freeland, on the receiving end of verbal abuse from a right wing nut job. In it, the idiot called Freeland, an Albertan, a traitor and to get out of the province. Freeland was able to make it to an elevator to avoid further confrontation.

For a majority of the week, broadcasters have been hammering this video and subsequent stories hard. Conversely, the Chris Bittle fiasco has received virtually no coverage in the broadcasting realm. As a result, it made the commentary of how silence is part of the problem especially awkward to witness. It can be easy to conclude that stories about antisemitic tweets tends to take a back seat while attacks on women get featured more prominently, however, the difference in the treatment of the two stories could have political undercurrents at play here.

Last year, the Canadian government had been pushing the online harms proposal, a controversial forthcoming piece of legislation that threatened to effectively wipe out small and medium sized websites with threats of $10 million fines if they don’t implement non-existent flagging systems and accidentally fail to comply with a complaint within 24 hours. After a highly questionable consultation process, a huge majority of respondents came out to condemn the legislation, the process, or both. As a result, the proposal was delayed. This despite a hard push by the media to sell the legislation to the public.

Now, fast forward to today and you see two completely different reactions by the media over two stories that revolve around hate. One story involves a presumed right winger being verbally abusive towards a deputy prime minister, the other involves the government hiring an organization whose key member posted antisemitic tweets – followed up by a Liberal MP sending abusive messages to a professor who had the audacity to join calls for the government to look into the incident. When one looks at this story through the lens of pushing the online harms proposal, the difference in reaction actually makes a whole lot of sense.

With Freeland, we’re talking about a Liberal MP being the victim of harassment. With a little bit of finagling of the details, one can presume that this hate was sourced online. Therefore, it’s easy to nudge the story towards the idea that the Internet is clearly the problem and that the solution is to hastily introduce the online harms proposal. This despite the confrontation happening in a physical location.

With the CMAC story, you have the Liberal government undergoing the embarrassment of potentially hiring an organization that has at least a member posting antisemitic tweets. Even worse is you have a Liberal MP hurling insults at a well regarded law professor, going from falsely accusing Michael Geist of being a racist, then apologizing for the comments, then walking back on the apology by accusing Geist of bullying and playing the victim card after.

In the latter situation, it’s easy to question the judgment of the government. How can you trust the government to even handle online harms after that cluster blank? As a result, it is really tough to sell the online harms proposal under those circumstances.

With the media gunning for the online harms proposal, which story would you rather cover heavily? The former. What’s more is that we are already seeing outlets gently nudge this story towards the idea that the online harms proposal needs to move forward now. In fact, we are starting to see that gentle nudging in online versions of the story:

Prior to the 2021 election, the federal government introduced legislation aimed at protecting Canadians from what it calls online harms, but that bill died when the election was called, and, after widespread critique, new legislation is back in consultations.

Legislation governing how social media platforms grapple with harmful content is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to online harassment, said Emily Laidlaw, Canada research chair in cybersecurity law at the University of Calgary. Reforms to the legal system, education and other policy areas like cybersecurity and privacy were all important as well, she told The House.

There’s definitely a lot of facts being glossed over here. For instance, the previous version of the online harms proposal threatening to destroy the Canadian internet because of excessive compliance issues that are all but impossible to follow for web masters as well as mass internet censorship for sites that failed to comply with the law existing outside of the country. When we’re talking about the problem vs the proposed solution, this amounts to using a sledge hammer to squash a mosquito. Yes, online hate is a problem, but implementing a law that would destroy the whole internet will cause far more damage in the long run. Further, it would completely nuke any chances of Canada becoming a digital leader in the world because moving out of the country would be required before making a serious attempt at running an online business.

It is, indeed, true that the government has said it has gone back to the drawing board. The thing is, it’s all but impossible to tell if the government has any intention of listening to the criticism this time around. On the one hand, there have been messages from the Heritage Ministry saying that they have listened and are looking at revamping the legislation. On the other hand, this is the same ministry calling criticism of the social media censorship bill (Bill C-11) “misinformation” all the while pushing a misinformation campaign.

So, it’s really difficult to say for certain whether the government is really going to listen to the criticisms or not. It is entirely possible that the government could just make minor tweaks that legally changes little to nothing and present the online harms proposal as a bill largely unchanged while saying “we listened”. On the other hand, we could also see the government do something logical like introduce limits to which websites need to comply with the strictest of requirements for instances. Specifically, if you run a website with at least 50 million visitors per day, then you need to introduce a flagging system while websites under that threshold do not need to comply with that. We don’t really know what the government will wind up doing here.

A very valid fear would be that the former scenario happens and the Heritage Ministry would simply follow the script of Bill C-11 and say that criticisms is “misinformation”. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that.

Still, there is very good reason to worry. If the government screws this up like the other bills, then it could mean the end of not just Freezenet, but any small Canadian website out there struggling to make ends meet. After the Project Bernanke accusations, it’s safe to say that everyone knows that it is really tough to survive as an independently run website. The last thing someone like us needs is a bill that completely torpedoes our ability to exist. That is an unreasonable response.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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