The Canadian government’s consultation on online harms concluded earlier this week with a wide range of organizations and experts responding with harshly critical submissions that warn of the harm to freedom of expression, the undermining of Canada’s position in the world as a leader in human rights, and the risk that the proposed measures could hurt the very groups it is purportedly intended to help. I posted my submission and pulled together a Twitter stream of other submissions.
There has been some press coverage of the consultation response from the Globe and Mail and National Post, but Canadian Heritage officials have said they will not post the submissions they received, claiming some “may contain confidential business information.” Keeping the results of the consultation is secret is incredibly damaging, raising further questions about whether the government plans to incorporate the feedback or simply march ahead with an extreme, deeply flawed proposal.
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The government’s consultation on its proposed approach to address harmful content online concluded over the weekend. The consultation was one of several consults that ran during the election period and which raise questions about whether policy makers are genuinely interested in incorporating feedback from Canadians. I submitted to all the various consultations and will be posting those submissions this week.
I start with my online harms submission. The full submission, which touches on issues such as 24 hour takedowns, website blocking, proactive monitoring, and enforcement, can be found here. To learn more about the issues, catch my Law Bytes podcast episode with Cynthia Khoo or listen to a terrific discussion that I had together with Daphne Keller on the Tech Policy Press Podcast. The submission opens with eight general comments that I’ve posted below:
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The Liberal government’s push to pass Bill C-10 took a disturbing turn at the Canadian Heritage committee yesterday as the Liberal MPs overruled the committee chair to allow for dozens of undisclosed amendments to be voted on without any debate or discussion. While the MPs on the committee have access to the amendments, they are not made available to the public until after the committee completes its review. In normal circumstances, an amendment is introduced by an MP (the amendment may not be posted but it is often read into the record by the MP and its intent is discussed), there is an opportunity to ask questions of department officials on the implications of the amendment, MPs engage in debate and can propose sub-amendments. Once all MPs are satisfied that they understand the implications of the amendment, it comes to a vote. All of this takes place in a transparent, public manner.
Not with Bill C-10, however. For example, yesterday the committee approved amendment LIB-7N. The only thing disclosed during the committee meeting was that it amends something in clause 8 in the bill. The specific amendment was not publicly disclosed, there were no department officials to comment or answer questions, there was no debate, and no opportunity for sub-amendment. The amendment was simply raised by number and MPs were asked to vote on it. The amendment passed with the support of Liberal, Bloc, and NDP MPs. This form of secret law making is shocking and a complete reversal from a government that claimed to prioritize transparency. Indeed, it is hard to think of a more secretive law making process in a democracy than passing amendments to a bill that are not made available to the public prior to the vote nor open for any discussion or debate.
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Yesterday was not a good day for those who still believe that democratic ideals matter. The day began with an iPolitics-sponsored debate featuring MPs who have played a starring role at the Canadian Heritage committee review of Bill C-10: Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, Conservative MP Rachael Harder, NDP MP Heather McPherson, and Bloc MP Martin Champoux. The substantive discussion largely mirrored the committee debate, but far more dispiriting was Housefather seeking to justify the Bill C-10 gag order by arguing that it was the democratic right of the government to use whatever legislative tools are available to it (even if that tool had not been used for two decades) or Champoux talking about the need to respect democracy while simultaneously supporting the gag order.
While the MPs presumably thought that they would not be meeting again to discuss Bill C-10 until Friday (the usual committee meeting day), hours later they were back in committee for a four hour marathon secretly negotiated by the party whips for the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc. The meeting had so little notice that committee chair Scott Simms opened by making his displeasure with the party whips very clear:
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The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage continued its clause-by-clause review of Bill C-10 yesterday, spending the full two hours debating a Conservative amendment that would have restored the user generated content safeguards that were removed when Section 4.1 was dropped from the bill. The Conservative amendment effectively offered the parties a “do-over” by acknowledging that the removal had sparked huge public concern over the implications for freedom of expression and net neutrality. Nevertheless, the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc voted down the motion, with the NDP not even bothering to speak to the issue at all.
While the three parties were not supportive of addressing the user generated content concerns, they were quick to defend any suggestions that the study of Bill C-10 had been flawed and excluded important voices. For example, when Conservative MP Rachael Harder began reading comments from Scott Benzie on the harms to digital-first Canadian creators who did not appear before the committee (citing the likes of Lily Singh, Molly Burke and thousands more), Liberal MP Anthony Housefather jumped in with a “point of clarification” that the Conservatives could have invited Benzie as a witness (he said the same to me in a Twitter exchange). Bloc MP Martin Champoux also took issue with suggestions that the consultation had been incomplete, stating that there had been 121 witnesses.
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