Declassified/Top Secret by Bryan Jones (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/6SWKkN

Declassified/Top Secret by Bryan Jones (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/6SWKkN

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The Rest of the Online Harms Consultation Story: Canadian Heritage Forced to Release Hundreds of Public Submissions Under Access to Information Law

For months, the results of the government’s online harms consultation was shrouded in secrecy as the Canadian Heritage refused to disclose the hundreds of submissions it received. I launched a page that featured publicly available submissions (links reposted below), including 25 submissions from organizations and companies as well as six individual expert submissions. I later followed up with two posts that provided further details on the publicly available submissions (here and here). Earlier this year, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez released a “what we heard” report that again blocked making the actual submissions public, but provided a summary that left little doubt that the government’s plans were widely criticized and required a policy reset.

In the meantime, I filed an Access to Information Act request to compel disclosure by law of the consultation submissions. It took many months, but this week the department released the results. While some submissions may be excluded – third parties can object on certain grounds – I have obtained hundreds of additional submissions in a 1,162 page file. These can be obtained directly from Canadian Heritage by launching an informal access request at no cost with the department. The file to request is A-2021-00174 (or click here for the full file for the moment).

I post the names of the previously unavailable submissions from organizations below. There are hundreds of individual submissions (including several from top experts) which can be accessed via the request but I will not post the individual names here.

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.

The most notable submission came from Twitter (its must read submission is here), which warned that the proactive monitoring of content envisioned by the government:

“sacrifices freedom of expression to the creation of a government run system of surveillance of anyone who uses Twitter. Even the most basic procedural fairness requirements you might expect from a government-run system such as notice or warning are absent from this proposal. The requirement to ‘share’ information at the request of Crown is also deeply troubling.”

Further, it didn’t pull any punches with respect to the government’s website blocking plans, literally likening it to China, North Korea and Iran:

The proposal by the government of Canada to allow the Digital Safety Commissioner to block websites is drastic. People around the world have been blocked from accessing Twitter and other services in a similar manner as the one proposed by Canada by multiple authoritarian governments (China, North Korea, and Iran for example) under the false guise of ‘online safety’ impeding peoples’ rights to access information online.

Further, there are no checks or balances on the commissioner’s authority, such as the requirement of judicial authorization or warnings to service providers. The government should be extremely mindful of setting such a precedent – if Canada wants to be seen as a champion of human rights, a leader in innovation and in net neutrality globally, it must also set the highest standards of clarity, transparency and due process in its own legislation.

In fact, even groups that might have been expected to support the proposal were critical. For example:

  • the National Association of Friendship Centres warned that changes to the CSIS Act related to obtaining transmission data or basic subscriber information posed “a legitimate risk of governing bodies weaponizing this legislation to identify protests as anti-government, especially when Indigenous people across Turtle Island articulate their inherent rights and sovereignty.”
  • the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, while supportive of some elements, warned against the plan to offload funding regulation to the Internet providers: “we strongly urge the government to reconsider the optics of directly linking the funding of these offices to the very entities being regulated by it.”
  • the Safe Harbour Outreach Project feared “the proposed Digital Harms framework has grave potential to hurt sex workers, 2SLGBTQ+ folks, BIPOC communities, and other marginalized populations.”
  • the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs noted “a one-size-fits-all model is not appropriate. While online hate may be detestable, it may not be comparable to the imminent risk or serious harm cause by a potentially pending terrorist attack. Put simply, with respect to reporting to police, the threat of bombing a building is not the same as espousing hatred.”
  • the National Council of Canadian Muslims stated “simply put, the legislation as it stands now could inadvertently result in one of the most significant assaults on marginalized and racialized communities in years. NCCM does not participate in hyperbole; but this is gravely, dangerously concerning.”

While Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has agreed to re-assess the online harms policy with a new expert panel and initiated a re-branding as “online safety”, the entire consultation process is an absolute embarrassment to the government. The policies themselves were ill-considered and harmful, leading allies to criticize them and others to warn of parallels to China and North Korea. The secrecy associated with the consultation and the associated submissions was a repudiation of the government’s professed commitment to openness and transparency with only fear of legal violations of access to information laws compelling disclosure of information that should have been publicly available by default months ago.

Yet despite these disqualifying actions, there are seemingly no consequences. The same department is pushing ahead with anti-Internet policies in Bill C-11 (regulating user generated content) and C-18 (mandated payments for facilitating access to news online), backing copyright term extension, and gearing up for another run at online harms with an expert panel that presumably hasn’t even been given access to these submissions. It is time for the government to take responsibility for the online harms debacle and take a far closer look at the mess it is creating on Internet policy by re-assessing its approach and leadership on the issues.

Organizations in the ATIP package

Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies Canada
B’nai Brith Canada
BC Coalition of Experiential Communities
Business Software Alliance
Canadian Bar Association
Canadian Centre for Child Protection
Canadian Telecommunications Service Providers (Bell, Rogers, Telus, Shaw, Cogeco, Quebecor)
Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment
CBC/Radio-Canada
Centre for Gender & Sexual Health Equity
Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs
Centre for Law and Democracy
Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy
Defend Dignity
Federation of Black Canadians
Free Speech Coalition
Living in Community Society
Microsoft
National Association of Friendship Centres
National Council of Canadian Muslims
Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime
Pivot Legal Society
Rassemblement Pour La Laicite
Safe Harbour Outreach Project
Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition
Twitter
Ukrainian Canadian Congress

Previously posted submissions include:

Organizations

Access Now
Canadian Association of Research Libraries
Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT)
Canadian Civil Liberties Association
Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children
Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC)
Chinese Canadian Council for Social Justice
Citizen Lab (Cynthia Khoo, Lex Gill, Christopher Parsons)
Cybersecure Policy Exchange
Global Network Initiative
Global Partners Digital
Google Canada
Independent Press Gallery of Canada
International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group
Internet Archive Canada
Internet Society Canada Chapter
Joint Submission from Civil Liberties and Anti-Racism Groups
LEAF – Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund
News Media Canada
Public Interest Advocacy Centre
OpenMedia
Ranking Digital Rights
TechNation
TekSavvy
Tucows

Individual Experts

Blayne Haggart and Natasha Tusikov
Darryl Carmichael and Emily Laidlaw
Drew Wilson
Fenwick McKelvey
Michael Geist
Valerie Webber and Maggie MacDonald

 

16 Comments

  1. Sok Puppette says:

    > gearing up for another run at online harms with an expert panel that presumably hasn’t even been given access to these submissions.

    … and that seems kind of suspiciously rich in people likely to have certain viewpoints. And that’s been given a whole series of prepared “meeting worksheets” in a transparent attempt to push it in certain directions.

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  6. Clinton Blackmore says:

    Thank you so much, Mr. Geist, for obtaining this information and telling us about it.

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