Earlier today, the Liberal party convention approved (subject to a final vote) two stunning policy resolutions with enormous implications for freedom of expression. First, as discussed yesterday, it approved a resolution that seeks 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.” If enacted, the policy would undermine freedom of the press and could even spark widespread censorship on Internet platforms. In addition, it passed a resolution to develop “truth in political advertising” legislation to be administered by an oversight body. There are legitimate concerns about the “truthiness” of all political parties communications, but political truth oversight bodies carries great risk and is unlikely to foster enhanced public trust.
Indeed, these resolutions are only the latest in a series of legislative and policy measures in which the government and the governing party have become increasingly comfortable with speech regulation that raises serious constitutional concerns. When the government first ventured into support for the media sector, it did so lightly, recognizing the risks of government intervention with the media. For example, the creation of the Local Journalism Initiative directly supported journalism with a program administered by arms-length organizations and required open access to the resulting work. The days of being careful are long gone: from the Labour Journalism tax credit to Bill C-18’s mandatory payments for links and CRTC media codes of conduct, the government no longer hesitates to intervene in the media sector.
It does not end there. Bill C-11’s regulation of user content raises troubling possibilities with Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez consistently failing to provide a credible explanation for rejecting safeguards for user content, leaving many to believe that regulatory power (including the possibility of mandating warning labels on some content) is the goal. Online safety legislation is on the way, backed by a policy development process in which the government only disclosed public submissions to its consultation when compelled to do so by law and soft-pedalled widespread criticism. Meanwhile, the unsurprising response to Bill C-18 from Google and Facebook – both now considering stopping news sharing or linking in Canada – sparked a Canadian Heritage committee motion that amounted to a fishing expedition into internal and third party communication and bizarre hearings in which MPs theatrically take turns ratcheting up the anger against the tech companies.
There are real issues with disinformation, online hate, privacy, competition, and a host of other online concerns that require various forms of regulation. But the government’s current approach suggests that it believes the ends justify even potentially unconstitutional means. It sounds extreme, but the slippery slope that starts with media intervention expands to investigations into critics, truth oversight bodies, and restrictions on press freedoms. Yet we must be honest with ourselves and see that this is where we are today with current and future policies that risk turning Canada into a dangerous model that more repressive regimes may cite with approval to justify their own anti-democratic measures. I don’t know what else to say other than this feels like uncharted territory. It must stop.