From the outset, I have had concerns about plans to create new legislation addressing online hate.
Some may find my position surprising, given my involvement in the first CRTC application to request blocking of a website, back in August 2006.
That was a very different case from trying to establish a regime that attempts to define what constitutes online harms and enforces limits on our freedom of expression.
we need to be able to distinguish between language that is insightful and words that are inciteful. Which words lead to constructive engagement and which words are those that are destructive? What facts are being omitted because they inconveniently don’t fit the narrative being set forward? Which authors are consistently reliable and which ones seem to prefer sensationalism over substance?
In 1964, ruling on a case considering “hard-core pornography”, US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote of the term that “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it”.
How will we define what material online should be considered illegal, versus that material which is merely offensive? Will we know it when we see it?
This could be the challenge for the Heritage Minister in introducing online harms legislation. Indeed, the expert advisory group appointed by Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez earlier this year concluded its work 2 months ago, recognizing “The issue of harmful content found online is both a critical and complex issue that calls for an approach that balances freedom of expression, protection of privacy, and online safety.”
That said, let’s examine a very current situation: a Montreal-based consultant who refers to Jews as “loud mouthed bags of human feces”, and threatens “Jews with a bullet to the head” (as highlighted in a Twitter stream last Friday by journalist Jonathan Kay).
Hateful or merely offensive? To me, it’s pretty clear that this kind of commentary crossed the line.
But we don’t actually need to consider whether or not Laith Marouf’s comments would survive Canadian Heritage’s prospective Online Harms legislation. Legal or not, it seems pretty inexcusable that this same department of the Canadian government has been providing funding to him.
And to add insult, the funding falls under the Department’s “Anti-Racism Action Program”. Was there any due diligence performed by those responsible for vetting applications? Did anyone use Google before handing out cash to this guy?
I highlighted this problem back in April shortly after the news was released, quoting Canada’s Minister of Housing and Diversity and Inclusion. Before providing a Ministerial statement for the CMAC press release, did anyone check references for the other guy being quoted?
Four months after I started asking questions, I have still seen no action by the government to distance itself from this online purveyor of antisemitism.
The Minister has said Canada is seeking to create “a legislative and regulatory framework to … help create a safe space online that protects all Canadians”.
How can we expect the Minister of Canadian Heritage to establish legislation creating safe spaces online, when the same department is funding those creating the kinds of material against which the legislation is intended to target.
There can be no credibility for online harms legislation being proposed by a department that funds those who generate online hate.