Last night, Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault posted a remarkable tweet that should heighten concerns about Bill C-10, forthcoming online harms legislation, and the government’s intent with respect to free speech. In the weeks since it opened the door to treating all user generated content as a “program” subject to CRTC regulation, there has been mounting public criticism and concern about the implications for free speech. While the tech companies have remained relatively silent, Canadians have been speaking out. Those voices now include the Government of Saskatchewan, with Minister of Justice Gord Wyant writing to Guilbeault to urge the federal government to stop Bill C-10 from proceeding or amend it to ensure that “all creative Internet content generated by Canadians will be exempt from any regulatory supervision by federal government agencies.”
Given the opposition – as well as Guilbeault’s well-documented disastrous interviews on CBC and CTV – one would have thought the Minister would be seeking to assuage public concern. Instead, Guilbeault took to Twitter last night to suggest that the public anger over Bill C-10 was a matter of “public opinion being manipulated at scale through a deliberate campaign of misinformation by commercial interests that would prefer to avoid the same regulatory oversight applied to broadcast media.”
Over the past few weeks of intense Bill C-10 debate, nothing has left me angrier or more concerned than this tweet. First, the conspiracy theory amplified by Guilbeault is plainly wrong and itself quite clearly misinformation. The concerns regarding the bill have been backed by law professors, experts, Justice Ministers, former CRTC chairs, and hundreds of others. To claim this is a tech-inspired misinformation campaign lends support to the view that Guilbeault still does not understand his own bill and its implications. Moreover, not only have the tech companies remained relatively quiet, but most did not even appear before the Heritage Committee as part of its study. To suggest that having largely ignored the bill, the companies are now engaged in some grand conspiracy is lunacy.
Second, Guilbeault’s decision to quote from the Medium article is particularly notable since the piece not only argues that the criticism is based on a corporate-inspired misinformation campaign, but that it demonstrates the need for Bill C-10. In other words, Guilbeault is citing with approval an article calling for government and CRTC regulation precisely because of public criticism of proposed government legislation. With government insisting that the CRTC should have the power to regulate the content of Canadians’ social media feeds through discoverability requirements, it is worrying that the Guilbeault cites with approval an article that links regulating speech and political criticism.
Third, Guilbeault has regularly indicated that he plans to introduce “online harms” legislation in the coming weeks that will include website blocking, mandated takedowns, and the creation of a new social media regulator. The ease with which a government minister labels criticism and public dissent as misinformation for political gain is deeply troubling given that the same minister is planning extensive new speech and Internet regulations.
If the public needed yet another reason to be concerned about the government’s motivation for Bill C-10, Guilbeault just provided it. He is set to introduce a bill that purports to deal with misinformation, yet just used his own Twitter feed to traffic in it. Indeed, the government cannot claim to support freedom of expression and at the same time have its lead minister on the file amplify flimsy conspiracy theories and openly support regulating speech based on such theories. Bill C-10 is not designed to address misinformation, but the fact that Guilbeault seems to think it could help address the issue represents a giant red flag that cannot be ignored. The government should start from scratch on Bill C-10 and cannot vest responsibility for the online harms bill in Guilbeault.