Mark Goldberg

A Canadian Moderation Standards Council

A recent article calls for the creation of a “Moderation Standards Council” to address how social media platforms deal with and moderate what is termed as “harmful content.” I am concerned about the proposal for such a body.

Writing in Policy Options for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Fenwick McKelvey, Heidi Tworek, and Chris Tenove say that “no concrete regulatory action has yet been taken that addresses how large social media platforms deal with harmful content.” As a result, they assert that Canada needs to create “an institution for content moderation.”

One bold path forward would be to have the CRTC mandate companies to create this council, a co-regulation approach similar to the Broadcasting Standards Council. The CRTC would mandate the work of the standards council, and set specific binding commitments to improve the transparency and accountability of content moderation.

There are a number of problems with this. Let’s start with jurisdiction. Unlike broadcasters that require a CRTC license to operate, social media platforms are unlicensed and unregulated. The CRTC has no authority to ‘mandate companies to create this council.’

Then we need to take a look at whether a democratic country like Canada should be or even could be involved in creating a legislative framework to assert such authority over what might be termed ‘merely’ harmful content, as distinguished from illegal content. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: …

    1. freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

As frequent readers know, I often write about the need for increased focus on digital literacy and fully endorse the government’s role in teaching people how to engage online with a more critical eye. That is very different from a government agency policing what is said and involvement in a council to “help leaders, civil society and governments decide how to establish fines or other penalties for platforms that do not meet expectations.”

The academics write “Poor moderation of speech that someone deems harmful can undermine opportunities for free, full and fair participation in online debates by all Canadians.” We have set a very high bar in defining what forms of speech are illegal, as contrasted with speech that someone deems harmful. As Aaron Sorkin wrote in An American President:

You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.

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