Testing democratic freedoms

For a while now, I have expressed concerns with Canada’s plans to regulate internet content. Over the past month, those concerns have not been assuaged.

I do not believe, and have never subscribed to the view, that the internet should be a lawless platform, immune from application of laws. “Taming the wild west” is a post of mine from March 2006. My concern has been in crafting and attempting to tailor new laws and creating new standards of acceptable behaviour for digital media. We have laws and a body of jurisprudence in their application to the analog world.

A recent editorial in the Sunday New York Times was entitled “Canada’s Trucker Protests Are a Test of Democracy” [February 13, 2022]. “We disagree with the protesters’ cause, but they have a right to be noisy and even disruptive. Protests are a necessary form of expression in a democratic society, particularly for those whose opinions do not command broad popular support.”

From their vantage point in New York, or from my suburban home in the Toronto area, I acknowledge that it is a lot easier to comment on the inconveniences and disruptions to everyday life in Ottawa from horns and street closures. As the Times writes, “The challenge for public officials is to maintain a balance between public health and safety and a functioning society, with the right to free expression.”

Where do we draw the line? I’m not sure about the line itself, but it seems to me we witnessed some examples of “free expression” that are pretty clearly on the wrong side of the line. Protests that disrupts border crossings, at a cost in the order of half a billion dollars a day in trade, crossed the line, in my view. Protests that close a major vaccine centre in Ottawa crossed the line, in my view. Defecating on the porch of a private residence crossed the line, in my view.

A few weeks ago, I wrote, “It seems to me that how Canada deals with the Ottawa protest can be a barometer for how Canadians might view government intervention in online content.”

Support for “Freedom of Expression” and “Freedom of Peaceful Assembly” is indeed easy when you agree with what is being said. How do we deal with controversial points of view? If the way our municipal, provincial, and federal governments dealt with the protests are indeed a barometer for trusting government to deal appropriately with online content, would most Canadians say that we passed the test?

There is already legislation on the books to deal with the most troublesome content on the internet. As, such, we need to be very careful in new definitions of what constitutes online harms. Similar to questions being raised about Canada’s declaration of invoking the Emergencies Act, could other laws, if actually enforced, do the job?

I have quoted Aaron Sorkin’s The American President before, but it is such a great line, I’ll repeat it again: “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.”

Shouldn’t more effort be focused on teaching critical thinking, teaching school kids how to process information online, including checking and verifying “news” and “facts” being shared on social media? That has been the approach in Finland, as described in articles over the past year or so in The Telegraph and The Guardian. “With democracies around the world threatened by the seemingly unstoppable onslaught of false information, Finland – recently rated Europe’s most resistant nation to fake news – takes the fight seriously enough to teach it in primary school.”

Finland’s approach isn’t a quick fix. Investing in digital literacy in kindergarten and primary schools means playing the long game. But, aren’t critical thinking, and digital literacy, among the most needed skills to better prepare the country for life in the digital information age?

Perhaps, it is another way to develop a generation of better informed infomediaries.

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