Yes, Antisemitism is a Problem. No, Using Online Harms Bill to Shut Down the Internet is Not the Solution

At an antisemitism conference, Canadian Justice Minister, Arif Virani, said that the Online Harms legislation will be moving forward.

Ever since Hamas launched a massive rocket attack on Israel, kidnapped hundreds of Jewish people, sparking a response from Israel with a potential massive ground invasion in response, antisemitism has been put under the microscope. The problem with antisemitism has always been around, though it may not be as visible as other hate crimes in the media landscape – at least until recently that is. What’s more, there are signs that antisemitism is on the rise in the aftermath of this recent war being sparked.

While the situation in Israel and the Gaza strip is a rather complex problem (especially with Iran suggesting that they would intervene in all of this) and seemingly a world away, the impact of this war is having an impact here in Canada – even in the world of digital rights.

Canada’s Online Harms bill is arguably the biggest threat to the internet the Canadian government currently has. It puts the threats of the Online Streaming Act and the Online News Act to shame. Fortunately for those trying to innovate online and ordinary users, it has seemingly been put on the back burner despite promises of introducing it within 100 days of government assuming office – we’ve blown well past that now. However, recent comments made by Justice Minister, Arif Virani, suggests that the government is wanting to move forward with this terrible legislation. From the CBC:

At a conference on confronting antisemitism on Monday, Justice Minister Arif Virani repeated a standing promise of the federal Liberal government to combat online harms with new legislation, but offered no timeline.

Virani said his government has found it a challenging balance to strike.

“We’ve got freedom of expression on one hand, which creates a vibrant democracy and allows us to differentiate ourselves from other parts of the world,” he said. “And we’ve got the pressure to ensure that when people are communicating online, they’re not actually targeting groups, they’re not promoting or vilifying groups, promoting hatred or violence against them.”

Asked if the government could introduce the bill before Christmas, Virani said he could not commit to a timeline.

“I’m trying to make sure we see it as soon as possible,” he said.

Law would be ‘adaptable’: minister

Virani said the legislation would be adaptable and “not etched in stone.”

The government’s previous attempts at policing online hate have led to expressions of concern from tech giants such as Alphabet, Google’s parent company, which is already in a face-off with Ottawa over C-18, the Online News Act.

The CBC is seemingly trying to paint this as just a fight with the large platforms, however, as we learned from the initial consultation back in 2021, there is currently no known threshold for who would fall within the scope of the bill. Unless the Liberal government actually listened to the responses and drastically changed the bill in the background, the legislation would apply to everyone.

The proposal that was published for the “consultation” suggests that any anonymous user can flag content for anything they consider “harmful”. Failure on the part of the website to respond to the complaint would subject a website to a $10 million fine at minimum. Further, the proposal suggests that websites not operating in Canada would be required to follow this law. Failure to follow this law would mean that the Canadian government can order Canadian ISPs to block that website altogether. This means that Canada would essentially have what would be considered “The Great Firewall of Canada”.

Unless a drastic overhaul of the Online Harms legislation was made (if anything, the government has been expanding the scope of the legislation and labelling anyone who is opposed to the legislation as “non-allies” while trying to filter them out of the debates as much as possible), then the legislation is set to strike a fatal blow to online innovation, making it impossible to maintain a website at all. This bill makes it trivial to flood a website with complaints and forcing it offline and saddling the owner with impossible to pay off debt, regardless of the content that was on there. No one survives this and the better solution is to just shut down your website before the fines start rolling in. It wouldn’t be worth a $10 million fine.

It is little wonder, with these facts on hand, that the proposal sparked near universal condemnation. The responses to the consultation directly were overwhelmingly negative. Even as recently as this year, 13 civil rights organizations published their red lines with the potential online harms proposal. In case you were wondering, yes, anti-racism groups did respond to the consultation and they, too, condemned the proposed law, say, among other things, that the proposal would further suppress minority groups by increasing surveillance on them by the RCMP (among other things).

So, why act now? In all likelihood, the Canadian government is looking for political cover to crack down on the internet. This is regardless of if it is even good cover. They just want cover that, in their head, would make sense and that is all that matters to them. Politically, this has a lot of similarities to when the Harper Conservative government took political advantage of the Amanda Todd case to push for a warrantless wiretapping bill. Carol Todd, at the time, was offended and said that Amanda would not want this done in her name. That was clear back in 2014. Fast forward to today and we see the Trudeau Liberal government seemingly pushing their internet crackdown bill in the name of fighting antisemitism. Similarly, I don’t believe the Jewish community would be particularly thrilled over the prospect of internet innovation and freedom of expression being brought to its knees entirely in their name.

Either way, anyone who is building a website should be nervous about these latest developments. Hopefully, this is just talk for the time being, but if not, web developers should probably start looking at another career. This while Canadian users should start looking into what VPN service is right for them before the government starts heavily censoring the internet. After all, we’ve seen on multiple occasions that the Canadian government considers criticisms towards it as “misinformation“. With the efforts to include misinformation into the online harms proposal, it could make it significantly harder to question the government in the future if the legislation is tabled and passed. If that were to happen, is Canada really a democracy at that point? Probably not.

(Via @Pagmenzies)

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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