Peter Menzies: On Free Speech in Canada, Trudeau Decides, Not Musk, Regardless of Twitter Buyout

CommentaryIf Elon Musk is looking for a scrap over free speech, Canada could very well provide him with his first brawl. Although his comments following his purchase this week of Twitter for US$44 billion indicated content moderation would still be a feature of the notoriously rambunctious platform, Musk is known as a free speech absolutist. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is definitely not one of those. His first run at a so-called Online Harms Act—one part of a multi-pronged approach to internet regulation legislation—was so extreme it was denounced by even pre-Musk Twitter as “drastic” and reminiscent of censorship practices employed in totalitarian states. Oblivious to this, Canadian Twitter users were this week either celebrating what they felt would be their pending liberation from speech restrictions or threatening to leave the platform for fear of it turning into a cesspit of unacceptable racism, humiliation, and threats of violence (their words, not mine). As the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur Tweeted, “My bet is Musk lands on the side of the line that allows for a sewer of misinformation that bleeds into hate speech and whatnot.” Both are wrong, because at the end of the day the laws of the land still govern Twitter and the online world. As powerful a man as Musk may be, his will not be the final say on what is and isn’t acceptable speech. In Canada, that final word will belong to Trudeau or a reasonable facsimile appointee. If anything, Musk’s reputation for “absolutism” might provide Trudeau with the political fuel he needs to expand control of the internet. There’s little doubt that more, not less, Twitter regulation would be something around which the Liberal/NDP political base, as illustrated by Arthur’s Tweet, would willingly rally. In other words, the nascent Online Harms bill is likely to be very bad news for free speech libertarians. While still under construction, the initial plan laid out for it called for the creation of a regulator to patrol the internet for illegal and objectionable content, impose 24-hour takedown notices on social media companies and, if necessary, order internet providers to block websites. This design is to be in concert with an amendment to Canada’s decades-old hate speech law in the Criminal Code. But as The Canadian Press reported, the original proposal was so restrictive of speech it was even opposed by groups it purported to protect. “Black Lives Matter posts have been mistakenly labelled hate speech and removed,” Darryl Carmichael, from the University of Calgary’s law faculty, told CP. “The result is that the voices of the very groups you seek to protect would be further isolated.” While this and other rebukes of the Trudeau government’s instincts forced Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez back to the drawing board, he’s still made it clear that the government is determined to impose its will on social media, including Twitter. Last month, while declaring freedom of speech to be a fundamental right, Rodriguez still felt the need to add that “there’s a lot of people that don’t want to share what they think” for fear of being abused online and the “negative and violent reaction they may get.” In other words, one way or another, there will be more legal restrictions coming for Canadians and their online speech. The genesis of this Online Harms legislation can be found in a report funded in 2020 by the Department of Heritage and undertaken by the Public Policy Forum’s Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression, whose mandate it is to “develop policy options to directly address the harmful impacts of digital technologies on Canada’s democratic institutions and public life.” That report called for the establishment of a new regulatory body led by a Digital Safety Commissioner whose job would be to patrol the internet for already illegal and other content it deemed necessary to remove to ensure public safety. As reported last year in the National Post, “the bill would target ‘online communication service providers’—a new category to be defined in the bill the government said would target major platforms like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Pornhub. It would apply to services whose primary purpose ‘is to enable users of the service to communicate with other users of the service, over the internet.'” Trudeau and his cabinet appear determined that democracy can only truly be preserved when speech is regulated to fight “disinformation” and “propaganda,” both of which are notoriously difficult to discern and define. That conviction in favour of a more powerful state prepared to err on the side of censorship seems very likely to clash head-on with the free speech mantra of Musk and others who believe that societies can only be free when speech is free. As Musk recently tweeted, “free speech is essential to a functioning democracy.” Get ready to rumble. Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the v

Peter Menzies: On Free Speech in Canada, Trudeau Decides, Not Musk, Regardless of Twitter Buyout

Commentary

If Elon Musk is looking for a scrap over free speech, Canada could very well provide him with his first brawl.

Although his comments following his purchase this week of Twitter for US$44 billion indicated content moderation would still be a feature of the notoriously rambunctious platform, Musk is known as a free speech absolutist. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is definitely not one of those. His first run at a so-called Online Harms Act—one part of a multi-pronged approach to internet regulation legislation—was so extreme it was denounced by even pre-Musk Twitter as “drastic” and reminiscent of censorship practices employed in totalitarian states.

Oblivious to this, Canadian Twitter users were this week either celebrating what they felt would be their pending liberation from speech restrictions or threatening to leave the platform for fear of it turning into a cesspit of unacceptable racism, humiliation, and threats of violence (their words, not mine).

As the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur Tweeted, “My bet is Musk lands on the side of the line that allows for a sewer of misinformation that bleeds into hate speech and whatnot.”

Both are wrong, because at the end of the day the laws of the land still govern Twitter and the online world. As powerful a man as Musk may be, his will not be the final say on what is and isn’t acceptable speech. In Canada, that final word will belong to Trudeau or a reasonable facsimile appointee. If anything, Musk’s reputation for “absolutism” might provide Trudeau with the political fuel he needs to expand control of the internet. There’s little doubt that more, not less, Twitter regulation would be something around which the Liberal/NDP political base, as illustrated by Arthur’s Tweet, would willingly rally.

In other words, the nascent Online Harms bill is likely to be very bad news for free speech libertarians. While still under construction, the initial plan laid out for it called for the creation of a regulator to patrol the internet for illegal and objectionable content, impose 24-hour takedown notices on social media companies and, if necessary, order internet providers to block websites. This design is to be in concert with an amendment to Canada’s decades-old hate speech law in the Criminal Code.

But as The Canadian Press reported, the original proposal was so restrictive of speech it was even opposed by groups it purported to protect.

“Black Lives Matter posts have been mistakenly labelled hate speech and removed,” Darryl Carmichael, from the University of Calgary’s law faculty, told CP. “The result is that the voices of the very groups you seek to protect would be further isolated.”

While this and other rebukes of the Trudeau government’s instincts forced Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez back to the drawing board, he’s still made it clear that the government is determined to impose its will on social media, including Twitter.

Last month, while declaring freedom of speech to be a fundamental right, Rodriguez still felt the need to add that “there’s a lot of people that don’t want to share what they think” for fear of being abused online and the “negative and violent reaction they may get.”

In other words, one way or another, there will be more legal restrictions coming for Canadians and their online speech.

The genesis of this Online Harms legislation can be found in a report funded in 2020 by the Department of Heritage and undertaken by the Public Policy Forum’s Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression, whose mandate it is to “develop policy options to directly address the harmful impacts of digital technologies on Canada’s democratic institutions and public life.”

That report called for the establishment of a new regulatory body led by a Digital Safety Commissioner whose job would be to patrol the internet for already illegal and other content it deemed necessary to remove to ensure public safety.

As reported last year in the National Post, “the bill would target ‘online communication service providers’—a new category to be defined in the bill the government said would target major platforms like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Pornhub. It would apply to services whose primary purpose ‘is to enable users of the service to communicate with other users of the service, over the internet.'”

Trudeau and his cabinet appear determined that democracy can only truly be preserved when speech is regulated to fight “disinformation” and “propaganda,” both of which are notoriously difficult to discern and define. That conviction in favour of a more powerful state prepared to err on the side of censorship seems very likely to clash head-on with the free speech mantra of Musk and others who believe that societies can only be free when speech is free.

As Musk recently tweeted, “free speech is essential to a functioning democracy.”

Get ready to rumble.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an award winning journalist, and former vice-chair of the CRTC.