The Liberal Party policy convention is underway in Ottawa with delegates preparing to debate a series of policy proposals that could ultimately make their way into their national election platforms. Party members voted on the top 20 proposals for discussion and included one involving the media and online information that seems obviously unconstitutional and a direct threat to a freedom of the press. The proposal, purportedly aimed at addressing misinformation, calls for more government funding for the media and that the government explore options to “hold on-line information services accountable for the veracity of material published on their platforms and to limit publication only to material whose sources can be traced.”
The notion that the problem with the media is the lack of government funding to enable a shift to ad-free news misdiagnosis the misinformation challenge as one linked primarily to advertising. Ironically, it would entrench existing media outlets and limit new news outlets and innovation. But even worse is that on the same week that the government celebrated press freedom week, the Liberal party is considering a proposal that would represent a stunning limitation on those freedoms. It is not clear precisely who would be covered by “online information services”, but the outcome is dangerous no matter the scope. Is this all news outlets with a focus on their online presence? Is it online-only news sources? Is this far broader and designed to encompass Internet platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok (note the reference to “platforms”) with requirements that they be held accountable for posts without traceable sources?
Moreover, what does “traceable sources” mean? Does it mean the media outlet must out the sources and thus be unable to rely on anonymous sources or whistleblowers? Does it mean that there must be a link to original documents or other articles included in the post? Does it mean that sources must be kept on hand and subject to government audits on the posts or articles?
The implications of the government engaging in this form of heavy-handed speech regulation are dangerous in all of these circumstances. Sourcing is an important issue in the media and the government cannot claim to support press freedom and simultaneously back policies that intervene in sourcing. As for the scope of the proposal, interfering with press independence is incredibly dangerous, both for Canadians’ access to information, freedom of expression rights, and for how Canada could be used as model by repressive regimes. Indeed, the inclusion of Internet platforms could lead to widespread content censorship, since platforms cannot possibly be required to verify that billions of user posts can all be sourced and would be left with little alternative but to severely restrict online posting.
The government is already creating significant concerns with press freedoms and access to information online with Bill C-18, which creates a system of mandated payments for links and will ultimately undermine trust in the media in Canada. If adopted, this Liberal policy proposal would further erode trust and place some of the most basic rights of expression and press freedom at risk.