Last month, I appeared before the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs to discuss Bill S-210, a bill that aims to limit minors’ access to pornography sites by implementing age verification and website blocking requirements. I warned that face recognition technologies, which are often used for age verification, raise serious privacy risks and that website blocking would have negative consequences for freedom of expression. Further, I emphasized how incredibly broadly the bill is drafted. While the Senators were focused on some well-known pornography sites, widely used sites and services such as Twitter or Reddit are also captured by the bill, raising the possibility of age verification to send a tweet or read a Reddit post.
The committee’s study of the bill continued yesterday with an appearance by Scott Hutton, the CRTC’s Chief of Consumer, Research and Communications. While Hutton emphasized there were no easy answers and that net neutrality principles would likely preclude action with respect to content regulation under the Telecommunications Act, his responses to some Senators reinforce concerns that should Bill C-11 pass, the Commission will be in the Internet content regulation business through the Broadcasting Act. Indeed, while Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and the CRTC have sought to downplay concerns that the CRTC would seek to regulate online content, Hutton told the committee the Commission needs more power in order to adopt a more interventionist approach:
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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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Bill C-10 was once again a major topic of discussion during Question Period in the House of Commons yesterday, with questions focusing on the broad scope of the law, freedom of speech concerns with regulating user generated content, and the inconsistencies in Cancon rules. Yet the issue that seemed to garner increased attention was whether Bill C-10 violates the government’s longstanding commitment to net neutrality.
The net neutrality issue was sparked earlier this month by Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, who suggested in an interview that critics of Bill C-10 were supporters of net neutrality, a comment that many took to indicate a shift away from supporting net neutrality. The government has since denied a change in policy and maintains that Bill C-10, which includes the discoverability rules that would empower the CRTC to prioritize or de-prioritize content on user social media feeds, does not undermine net neutrality.
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The Canadian government’s support for net neutrality has long stood as a foundational principle of its approach to the Internet. In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would defend net neutrality and expressed concern about the attacks on net neutrality in the U.S. That same year, Heritage Minister Melanie Joly made net neutrality a foundational part of Canadian cultural policy, stating that “as a government, we stand by the principle of net neutrality.” ISED Minister Navdeep Bains adopted the same position, stating “Net neutrality is one of the critical issues of our times, much like freedom of the press and freedom of expression before it.”
Given that freedom of expression is taking a back seat in Bill C-10 with the regulation of user generated content, perhaps it was inevitable that the government would also reverse its position on net neutrality. Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault recently gave an interview to the Toronto Star in which he appears to back away from supporting net neutrality, equating it to any Internet regulation:
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The Liberals led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were first elected in 2015 on a platform that emphasized transparency, consultation, and innovation. The signals were everywhere: it released ministerial mandate letters to demonstrate transparency, renamed the Minister of Industry to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development to point to the importance of an innovative economy, and soon after the cabinet was sworn in, Canadians were awash in public consultations (I recall participating in an almost instant consult on the Trans Pacific Partnership). With promises of entrenching net neutrality, prioritizing innovation, focusing on privacy rather than surveillance, and supporting freedom of expression, the government left little doubt about its preferred policy approach.
As I watched Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault yesterday close the Action Summit to Combat Online Hate, I was left with whiplash as I thought back to those early days. Today’s Liberal government is unrecognizable by comparison as it today stands the most anti-Internet government in Canadian history:
- As it moves to create the Great Canadian Internet Firewall, net neutrality is out and mandated Internet blocking is in.
- Freedom of expression and due process is out, quick takedowns without independent review and increased liability are in.
- Innovation and new business models are out, CRTC regulation is in.
- Privacy reform is out, Internet taxation is in.
- Prioritizing consumer Internet access and affordability is out, reduced competition through mergers are in.
- And perhaps most troublingly, consultation and transparency are out, secrecy is in.
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