Why Burning Down the Whole Internet to Stop Hate Speech is No Solution for Online Harms Proposal

If the Canadian government pushes the online harms proposal through unchanged, it would invariably cause more damage than it fixes.

There once was a village. In this village, there was a problem of crime like any other location. There was the odd petty theft here and there and even the occasional assault. Government officials didn’t like this. They know that these small crimes might be harming the reputation of the village. So, they got together and devised a solution. They took that solution and announced it to the village, saying that crime is hurting the villages reputation. So, at midnight that night, they will burn the whole village to the ground. The citizens were upset, but everyone who said that this is a terrible idea were branded as “pro-crime”.

At midnight, the village was torched. The buildings were burned to the ground, gardens were reduced to ash, and even parts of the nearby forest became nothing but a charred shadow of its former self. Government officials declared victory and said that they have finally rid the village of crime. The villagers were outraged. How are they going to run their businesses? Where will they live? How are they going to make money to support their family? The government officials responded by saying that they have done what no other village has done and solved the crime problem. As the villagers became overcome with rage and attacked the politicians, their rage would eventually die down as the idea took over that they had lost everything.

The above is a rather absurd story. How could politicians be that daft? The truth in the matter is that politicians being incredibly daft is playing out in Canada right now. Whether it is ending the careers of digital first creators through Bill C-11 or destroying news outlets through Bill C-18 (and we saw even more disinformation from Big Publishing today on that one, falsely claiming that critics are saying that only the big players got money in Australia when we have been saying that large players got a lions share of the money), the Canadian government has made it clear that they are at war with the internet. Anyone who dares to find innovative business ideas will be run out of business or run out of the country.

While both of the aforementioned bills would be devastating to a lot of businesses in Canada, that pales in comparison to what the government is cooking up with their online harms proposal. Indeed, the government hasn’t tabled the online harms proposal as a proper bill yet, however, we know what they are thinking and where they plan on going thanks to the 2021 “consultation”. It isn’t so much as a consultation as much as a notice to what the government plans on doing. What we saw horrified us to the point of responding and ultimately concluding that the proposal would effectively shut down the Canadian internet.

Indeed, some of the basis for such a law comes from the fact that there is online bullying and harassment. Racism online does, unfortunately, happen. Visible minorities do get death threats over the internet. Members of the LGBT community do get harassed and, sometimes, that harassment does translate to harassment in the physical world. What’s more, sometimes moderation policies on large platforms fail victims of this on top of it all.

What does tend to get lost in a lot of these debates is the fact that there is a host of good that came from the internet for those who are of a host of backgrounds, spanning religious, racial, or sexual identity backgrounds to name three. Safe spaces have been created online (one example being some of the devoted servers on Mastodon). People have been able to reach out and get help online for any number of issues they have experienced. In fact, there are countless stories where people have become more comfortable with who they are thanks to resources and tools that exist online today. Such things, sadly, don’t tend to reach the headlines as much as the negative stories, but such stories do exist out there today.

Indeed, there are issues surrounding hate and illegal activity online. The problem is that people tend to get wrapped up in this idea that there is an overwhelming problem that needs to be fixed. As a result, some people fall into the trap that any solution government proposes is automatically good. What’s more, politics fuels this because those pushing for such a law, just like in the absurd story above, tend to brand those who disagree with the bill as someone who doesn’t want to stop bullying, harassment, racism, or whatever other societal ill that comes to mind in that specific moment. This generally ends up being a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters and shut down legitimate debate on such an issue.

So, when people like use start publishing articles saying that the online harms proposal would be bad for everyone involved, we invariably get branded awful things like being “pro hate” or “pro racisim” or someone that has an agenda to actively thwart any kind of strategy to combat the various societal ills that the online harms proposal is branded as solving. This despite having very legitimate fears about the bill that has nothing to do with actually combating hate online.

Invariably, the question is, why are we against it based on what we know? This boils down to how it impacts websites like ours. Indeed, if you read our analysis at the time, you’ll have a very good idea what our fears are already. First of all, the law demands that websites implement a flagging system. Anything that is considered “harmful” can be flagged by anyone, anywhere, any time. Further, what is considered “harmful” is left up to the individual user as it is left incredibly broad.

In response to any claim, the website has 24 hour to respond and/or take down said content. Any content moderator or administrator in their right mind should be feeling anxiety at such a thought. The question is, what happens if a website doesn’t make such a window? Then that website would be fined $10 million for each infraction. “WTF? LOL!” indeed.

Further, there is no size limitation for the website that this law would affect. Whether you are a small website that gets maybe 10 page views per month or a website that garners millions of uniques every week, this applies to you as a website owner.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the law requires offshore websites to implement the same system. Yeah, “LMAO, not going to happen” indeed. Well, the proposal suggests that for websites that do not comply, ISPs in Canada would be ordered to block those sites in the first place. You can already see VPN services all over the world salivating at the potential boom in business from Canada.

Ultimately, my conclusion for any website operating within Canada is that you are screwed. If this bill is crafted like I think it will be, no website in Canada has a hope in surviving this. Given the magnitude of my conclusion, I actually went through the trouble of asking others in the industry if they think that they see a way of a website in Canada surviving this. Almost everyone gave me that “are you serious?” look. No one could think of a way for a legitimate online business to survive. Just for kicks, I actually asked Mike Masnick of TechDirt if the US passed a similar law if Techdirt would have a hope of surviving. I’ll add the response below if he wants to give it.

Regardless, I am far from alone with these fears. For instance, Open Media published a response to the potential online harms proposal and their concerns are very closely aligned with what our concerns are. Further, during the “consultation” process, anti-racism groups also spoke out against the proposal for very similar reasons. They further point out that such a proposal would lead to additional surveillance on top of it all. You don’t need to tell groups about how police surveillance can lead to further oppression of minority groups – they know about that all too well.

If people are struggling to figure out how websites survive in all of this, then this invariably leads to another problem. The aforementioned safe spaces that exist around the internet today would also be under thread – at least ones found in Canada. So, say, for instance, that a first nations woman was at a gas station and was pushed down to the ground by someone and had racial slurs thrown at her. That woman would feel distressed and, thanks in part to other factors adding stress in her life, she decides that, after the incident to go to an online community to talk to a group of people she trusts and can find ways of seeking further help if need be.

When she gets home later that day, she goes to that Canadian based website only to find out that the owner had shut down that web service. She sees the notice that they had to because they are not adequately able to be in compliance with the online harms law that recently passed. Now, that woman is going to feel even more isolated and alone. She may not know who to turn to in that situation. Her support group is now gone and she is basically at square one in all of this. Such a situation is incredibly damaging on pretty much every level.

It’s situations like that that is entirely possible under the online harms proposal. In a cruel twist of fate, it is ironic that a law aimed at reducing hate and racism actively contributed to even more hardship on the very people it is sold as protecting. Yet, based on what I saw in that technical paper, such a situation is not only entirely possible, but would be largely expected on top of it all.

So, when people like us criticize the online harms proposal as being impossible to comply with, based on the technical paper, it’s not that people like us are trying to shirk responsibility or even actively encourage hate and illegal activity online, but rather, we see the situation as being dangerous for everyone involved. It is basically using a sledge hammer to swat a mosquito. Sure, you might finally shut down some of those hate mills and block several others. At the same time, though, you are also destroying a lot of websites that have nothing to do with spreading online hate – some sites that lend support to victims might also, themselves, be the victims of this proposed bill.

Indeed, what is to stop botnets from flooding a website with complaints and making it impossible to stay afloat? It wouldn’t be that hard, either. It’s not that dissimilar to a Distributed Denial of Service attack. It wouldn’t require a whole lot of technical know-how to set up a malicious attack system to bring down any website those malicious actors want to bring down. It’s a system that is, from a fundamental level, ripe for abuse.

If the bill is crafted in the way that I think it will be crafted, we will basically be burning this whole part of the global village to the ground. This in an effort to go after a handful of crimes. It is an extreme over reaction that will cause far more harm than good. I don’t see how my website can survive and everyone else I’ve spoken to that have responded say they can’t figure out how to survive it either. So, when people like us criticize such a bill, it’s not that we don’t want to stop online hate, but rather, we’d rather not see our businesses burn to the ground. We’d rather continue to survive in a highly competitive online market thank you very much. You’re online harms proposal is not helping.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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