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Canada could soon see stricter rules to tackle disinformation, hate speech and other harmful content on social media and online platforms.
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez announced the creation Wednesday of a group of experts who will advise the government on how best to deal with the problem while protecting freedom of speech. The 12-person committee will assess ways to tackle a host of problems, including hate speech, child exploitation and incitements to violence.
The group includes experts on hate crimes, child exploitation, internet and free speech law, health communications, radicalization, and democratic governance and digital media. It will be required to define what counts as harmful content, identify which social media and other online services need to be regulated, and draft guidelines for what content these companies will be required to moderate.
“Canadians should be able to express themselves freely and openly without fear of harm online," Rodriguez said. "It’s clear that harmful online content is a serious problem, but there is no consensus on how to address it… I’m grateful to the experts who will dedicate their time and experience in the next few months to helping us tackle this complex issue. It’s too important to not get right.”
The strength of future rules will depend entirely on how Canada decides to define harmful content. While there are legal definitions for hate speech, so far no guidelines govern nasty political attack ads, disinformation and other content some might categorize as harmful.
This will be the team's biggest challenge, predicted Ahmed Al-Rawi, the director of the Disinformation Project and a professor of communication at Simon Fraser University. What counts as hate or harm is shaped by context. That can make it challenging to draw a line between harm and freedom of expression — even when it is clear that "freedom of expression does not mean freedom to spread hate."
A recent investigation by Canada's National Observer that linked a half-dozen self-professed grassroots Facebook pages in B.C. and Ontario to right-wing group Canada Proud highlights one of many risks online platforms pose to people and democratic institutions.
These pages have posted dozens of attack ads against local politicians like Squamish, B.C., Mayor Karen Elliott that she said have been "creating chaos." The anonymous ads have also made potential candidates, especially women, wary of running in upcoming municipal elections. She hopes the committee will try to tackle the problem.
"While the committee is looking at big issues like online hate and child exploitation, and these are really big and important topics, it also has to … (tackle) anonymous elements trying to use disinformation campaigns to erode trust in government at all levels," she said. "That may not seem as important as some of these bigger hate-related issues, (but) it is important to the fabric of our society and to creating healthy public discourse."
Deciding if this type of content falls under the purview of future regulations will fall to the committee and promises to be a challenging task.
Canada could soon see stricter rules to tackle disinformation, hate speech, and other harmful content on social media and online platforms.
In a February document, Heritage Canada noted that many Canadians opposed rules that might impact technically legal online content that caused harm, like the Facebook attack ads against Elliott. It also said that while there is widespread support for better regulation of online platforms, people disagreed on the types of services that should be regulated and how they should be managed.
That's a difficult task, Al-Rawi said — and he is certain he "will never envy their position."