The risks associated with the government’s online harms (or online safety) plans is not limited to Canadian Heritage’s credibility gap, which as I’ve recounted has included omitting key information in its public reports on consultations and shocking efforts to exclude contrary voices altogether. A new report, based on the government’s response to a Parliamentary Written Question from Conservative MP Dean Allison (Sessional Paper No. 8555-441-1219) raises new concerns about efforts to censor social media. The written question asked the government for “requests made by the government to social media companies to take down, edit, ban or change in any other way social media content, posts or accounts since January 1, 2020.”
The resulting report is stunning as government departments have in fact pressured the social media companies to remove news links and a range of lawful content including tweets that are said to contain “offensive language” or an “offensive reply.” The use of government power to censor social media posts or news links is exceptionally dangerous and crystallizes the fears of regulatory powers without the necessary due process and oversight that could lead to censorship of lawful content online.
The headline grabbing example comes from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, which pressured both Facebook and Twitter to remove links to a Toronto Sun article.
Sun columnist Lorne Gunter provides background on the case since the request involved his column. Whether the column is accurate or not is irrelevant. The government can take issue with the column directly with the paper, but trying to limit its visibility by censoring links is precisely the fear associated with Bill C-11, which does not regulate what Canadians say, but could limit their ability to be heard.
In addition to targeting news links, various departments have pressured Twitter to remove tweets that do not appear to be unlawful. For example, the Public Health Agency of Canada pressured Twitter to remove many tweets it said contained “offensive language.”
Twitter typically declined to do so, but seeking to censor tweets based on offensive language is entirely inappropriate for any government which claims to be committed to freedom of expression. Industry Canada similarly sought to censor an “offensive reply” to a tweet on the Competition Bureau’s Fraud Prevention Month. Twitter again said no. A Twitter search points to this as the originating tweet. The remaining reply is a bit strange but certainly not reasonably described as offensive.
The demands to censor tweets was not limited to text. Environment and Climate Change Canada pressured Twitter to remove a tweet that it said contained a “violent photo.” Once again, Twitter refused to do so.
This data gives rise to several takeaways. First, while the government has embraced every opportunity to criticize big tech companies, when it came to content takedowns of lawful content, those companies at least seemed to understand the importance of freedom of expression and did not cave to government pressure. And make no mistake, the pressure to respond favourably to a government demand to remove content is significant. Indeed, consider the Canadian Heritage committee’s current fishing expedition hearings that demand executive appearances, internal documents, and some third party correspondence as retribution for opposing the government’s Bill C-18. A similar scenario could easily unfold as MPs perform for the cameras in demanding answers for why content identified by government departments wasn’t removed.
Second, the government’s pre-occupation with mean tweets must be contrasted with the claims last year involving Canadian Heritage funding Laith Marouf, an anti-semite as part of its anti-hate program. The timelines provided by officials, including government ministers, suggested that no one noticed multiple tweets on the issue that were posted months before the issue became more widely known. Those claims were always implausible and now seem impossible given how closely departments seem to monitor commentary on social media that is directed their way.
Third, it is difficult to separate the government’s willingness to censor social media posts with its broader Internet regulation agenda, including Bills C-11, C-18 and online harms. Seeking to remove news links, mean tweets and other content without due process and without any apparent illegality does not bode well for the development of Charter-compliant regulations. The government may see itself as a model for others, but its willingness to muscle social media companies in an effort to remove lawful content is the very worst kind of example that should not be welcome in a democracy that prioritizes freedom of expression.