May 10, 2022
A poll commissioned by the Globe and Mail has found that 55% of Canadians support the Liberal government’s push to regulate the Internet, while 37% are opposed. Support was strongest in Québec, opposition strongest on the Prairies. On an age demographic axis, support trended older rather than younger.
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is navigating three Internet bills through the House. The Online Streaming Act C-11 will apply the objectives of the existing Broadcasting Act —to create, finance and promote Canadian media content—- to global streaming and content hosting sites like Netflix and YouTube .
The Online News Act C-18 will compel Facebook and Google to pay a better price to news organizations for journalism posted or indexed on their sites.
Both Bills are at Second Reading in the House of Commons. A third regulatory scheme dealing with harmful content posted on the Internet is being discussed by the Minister’s blue ribbon committee and is likely months away from being tabled as legislation.
The Nanos Poll tested opinion for the three bills combined, but only asked for views on the individual pieces of legislation in the case of the C-11 Streaming Bill. Support was higher for this Bill on its own: 67% in favour and only 22% opposed despite a barrage of criticism over the last year from Conservatives and cyberlibertarian critics. This level of support suggests the public is further ahead than politicians, critics and even the Press which continues to cover the Bill as hotly controversial. Support for C-11 was highest in Québec, but otherwise support and opposition did not vary widely between regions.
The public debate will likely reach a fever pitch if the third piece, an Online Harms Bill, is introduced.
The government’s first steps towards managing toxic online speech in a 2021 working paper followed the German model of policing individual posts for harmful content with the preferred method of enforcement being take-down orders.
That approach got a lot of blowback, even from those (myself included) who don’t count themselves as free speech absolutists or cyberlibertarians. The pragmatic challenges of a government regulator drawing red-lines on billions of social media posts are considerable, especially if the go-to remedy is a take-down order followed by appeals and counter-appeals. The platforms themselves would likely protect themselves by over-filtering and over-censoring.
The Minister re-booted the entire process and appointed an expert committee. McGill University’s Taylor Owen, a high profile member of that committee, just published a paper under the banner of the Public Policy Forum and co-written with former Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.
The McLachlin-Owen report emphasizes a preventative “systems” approach that incents social media platforms to be transparent to the public on how they filter and promote content. Importantly, they recommend a liability backstop “duty of responsibility” for the platforms to do a better overall job of reducing harmful posts without attaching corporate liability on a post-by-post basis.
It would be naive to think that any harms legislation can entirely avoid dealing with uncooperative platforms through coercive regulatory responses, be they fines or take down orders, but the McLachlin-Owen preventative approach is likely to get broader popular support than a straight-up policing of speech.