The Expert Advisory Group on Online Safety, appointed by Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, says that “misleading political communications” should be federally regulated. The group claims that unregulated political discussion and disinformation “erodes the foundations of democracy.”
Minister Rodriguez has previously said on several occasions that Bill C-11 would not regulate user-generated content. His claims, however, have been contradicted by the CRTC.
“We made it very clear in the Online Streaming Act that this does not apply to what individual Canadians and creators post online,” said Rodriguez. “No users, no online creators will be regulated. Only the companies themselves will have new responsibilities.”
“[Section] 4.2 allows the CRTC to prescribe by regulation user uploaded content subject to very explicit criteria. That is also in the Act,” CRTC chair Ian Scott told the heritage committee in June 2022.
Section 4.2 of the bill allows the CRTC to issue regulations on social media companies that affect the reach of content – favouring some content over others.
The comments were made repeatedly at several meetings of the Expert Advisory Group on Online Safety between April 9 and June 3. The committee was appointed in March 2022 to propose methods of regulating online content deemed harmful by the advisory group.
Amongst other things, harmful content would include “propaganda, false advertising and misleading political communications”stated the report from the group.
The heritage department issued both a Technical Paper and Discussion Paper that proposed to appoint a “Digital Safety Commissioner” who would have the power to take anonymous complaints on harmful content, conduct private hearings, impose fines and issue orders to block certain websites.
Regulated content would include written posts on Facebook, private messages on Twitter, video games, listings on Amazon and even Airbnb listings, group members said in one session. “Many experts mentioned there is justification to look more widely at some interactive services like Airbnb and gaming platforms.”
“Many experts supported the notion that private communications should be included under the scope of the legislative framework,” wrote staff on the advisory panel. “Private messaging services should also be regulated.”
The Expert Advisory Group highlighted that regulation must apply to content regardless of whether or not it is legal. Illegal hate speech, such as active calls for violence, has been regulated under the Criminal Code since 1970.
Grey zone content – speech that is lawful yet harmful – “poses unique challenges” wrote the advisory group. “Most harmful content online falls into this category,” adding “it is difficult to reconcile the issue of disinformation with the freedom of expression.”
Minister Rodriguez told reporters the advisory group’s advice would form the basis of a bill that would be tabled “as soon as possible.” “Every government’s first priority will always be the safety and the security of Canadians, said Rodriguez.
Bill C-11, known as the Online Streaming Act was tabled in early February 2022 and passed on June 21. The bill gives the CRTC more powers to regulate internet content. It is currently in second reading in the Senate, with debate resuming on September 20.