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The invention of the World Wide Web 35 years ago revolutionized global communication and gave us unprecedented freedom to discover and share information. Yet, the Internet has also facilitated harmful behaviours that existed long before its invention, such as bullying, harassment, and even ransom demands, to be carried out with greater ease and far broader reach.

Canada is among many nations grappling with these challenges. But three bills now before Parliament — Bill C-26, Bill S-210 and Bill C-63 — ostensibly designed to protect us from such harms instead illustrate how proposed cures can be worse than the disease.

Together, this legislative triad would grant the government sweeping powers to censor and censure and to undermine individuals’ privacy, freedom and security — and even the fabric of Canadian democracy itself.

Promulgated with the goal of protecting critical infrastructure, Bill C-26, as originally drafted, would have allowed the public safety minister to compel telecommunications providers, under threat of punitive fines, "to do anything or refrain from doing anything” or to provide “any information … within any time and subject to any conditions that the minister may specify.”

With an apparent nod to Eastern Bloc regimes of the last century, Bill C-26 omitted vital democratic checks and balances to constrain these powers. Following an avalanche of fiercely critical testimony from civil society groups, experts and industry bodies, MPs now appear to be curbing some of Bill C-26’s most egregious excesses, although there remains much work to be done.

Bill S-210, backed by opposition parties, has the commendable goal of protecting children from being able to view adult content online. In practice, the bill would block access to vast swaths of the Internet (think Amazon, Facebook, Google and Reddit) for any Canadian unwilling to hand over their personal information to the multibillion-dollar age verification industry. France and Australia have already explored similar legislation and concluded age verification technology that is both reliable and privacy-protective does not yet exist.

Rounding out the legislative trifecta is Bill C-63, which would require social media companies to remove harmful content and report on content they fail to remove but which causes psychological harm. So far, so good — many platforms are deliberately designed to serve up a stream of anxiety and despair with few, if any, legal obligations to manage the risks of harm.

Unfortunately, Bill C-63 would also allow anyone, anywhere to complain to the Canadian Human Rights Commission that something posted online — including at any time in the past — constitutes “hate speech,” itself defined in a disturbingly broad way. Accusers can remain anonymous, and their complaints will be decided, and penalties assessed, by unelected bureaucrats who need not adhere to rules of law or evidence — a situation inviting subjective and biased rulings that are unclear, inconsistent and unfairly and unevenly applied.

Worse yet, Bill C-63 is an invitation to acrimony and injustice. Dislike your neighbour? Want to ruin your business competitor? Eager to punish your ex? Just submit a complaint, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to profit from a $20,000 award against your target, who will also have to fork over $50,000 to the government. If you also claim they might — might — say something “hateful” in the future, your target could even be slapped with a pre-crime peace bond to silence them.

Federal legislation designed to protect us from harms such as bullying, harassment and even ransom demands instead illustrates how proposed cures can be worse than the disease, writes Sharon Polsky @PACC_CCAP #digital #privacy #cdnpoli

The coercive power and invasiveness of these legislative efforts have sparked alarm among privacy commissioners, civil libertarians, academics, lawyers and the few elected representatives who correctly understand the profound implications and unintended consequences of such legislation. Hard evidence of how the government is misusing existing powers exacerbates such concerns.

Unsurprisingly, the official response has been dismissive, even as parliamentarians privately admit they have little to no understanding of how advanced technologies work. Nevertheless, they insist their speaking points about how the laws might operate reflect how they will operate — conveniently overlooking that anything not written in the law will not be the law.

They forget that the Internet is merely a tool and that imposing unworkable obligations on private companies will do little to change human behaviour and, instead, make everyone a potential target of aggressors and opportunists seeking to silence critical thought.

Thirty-five years after Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web, Canadians deserve much better from their elected representatives. We have long provided MPs and senators with resources to strengthen their bilingualism. Perhaps it's time we did the same to strengthen their Internet literacy?

Sharon Polsky is president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada and a contributing writer to the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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Really surprised that there are no comments on this article. It is well researched, well written, and to the point.
In particular, the point made that the words in a law are what count once the law is passed. Good intentions don't cut it if the words are written sloppily or incorrectly or deliberately vaguely.
Don't believe me? Think "Not Withstanding Clause"!
Write to your MP asking them to support withdrawal of these 3 bills.

Disclosure: I generally applaud regulatory efforts to meaningfully and thoughtfully bring the digital economy into the 21st Century, dragging it unwillingly from the dusty, lawless-yet-paved-with-gold streets of the Wild West.

As the author correctly (in my view) points out, the level of knowledge held by our elected representatives (not to mention, the public), regarding all things digital, is generally low. I think this lack of knowledge is a primary reason for a near complete lack of a regulatory framework for the space. Uncharitably, this can be restated as tech running amok and gaining incredible fortunes in an inherently monopolistic milieu (how many different places do you go to look for videos ?) as a direct result of elected officials being overwhelmed at the prospect of intelligent oversight.

However, there are problems in this opinion and, in its framing, suggestions of corporate self-interest.

First, to allay my skepticism, I want to know who are the top 50 funders of the Privacy & Access Council of Canada. It’s website is not at all forthcoming regarding its principals or its membership. There is a listing of a few “fellows”, and a broad hagiograhic description of its unnamed board of directors, but nothing more to speak of.

Second, in the text, there is a repeated and troubling conflation, or leaps of logic, of basic, reasonable concerns with extreme possible outcomes.

For example:

“three bills now before Parliament ostensibly designed to protect us from such harms instead illustrate how proposed cures can be worse than the disease.”

“Together, this legislative triad would grant the government sweeping powers to censor and censure and to undermine individuals’ privacy, freedom and security — and even the fabric of Canadian democracy itself.”

“With an apparent nod to Eastern Bloc regimes of the last century…”

Well, OK. Interesting that the example of mal-intent was the Cold War Eastern Bloc rather than, say, our present slide toward surveillance (both government and capitalist) and autocracy (and corporatism), or even Snowden’s revelations, largely fueled by and designed into the current incarnation of the internet and the worldwide web.

After some reasoned concerns about whistleblowers with an axe to grind, the author adds:

“If you also claim they might — might — say something “hateful” in the future, your target could even be slapped with a pre-crime peace bond to silence them.”

I’m not terribly familiar with them, but I think you’ll agree that peace bonds are not a new idea. And, rather than the implied Minority Report “Pre Crime” dystopia, it seems to me peace bonds are issued based upon proven past behaviour with a reasonable expectation of future recurrence if preventative steps are not taken, such as abuse and harm by a romantic partner. Am I wrong?

“Hard evidence of how the government is misusing existing powers exacerbates such concerns.”

One need only look at various democracies around the world – e.g. the UK; India; the USA -- to conclude that it may well be the case that no amount of careful, democratic institution-building can prevent their being overwhelmed by dedicated human malevolence and greed (including WWW social engineering). Even in Canada, our federal gov’t has become more centralized within a single office. However, we nonetheless must build (and harden, where possible) those institutions, and our regulatory environment, believing that the common good remains the objective for our legislative bodies.

[Parliamentarians] forget that the internet is merely a tool…”

And some advocates, perhaps including the author (?), forget that the current artifacts of the Internet and WWW (Facebook; TikToc; X; Google; Amazon; Netflix; etc.) are nothing more than business opportunities arising from the current (pretty much nonexistent) regulatory regime governing the Internet and WWW. If some business models are no longer viable under meaningful oversight, other models will arise.

In fact, speaking of the Internet-as-tool, as we know it, it is also an unparalleled vector for bad actors to destroy human societies, with alacrity.

By all means, prevent enforcement by fiat and ministerial decree; but, to add another wrinkle, I’ve yet to see anywhere that “free speech” by definition requires a complete lack of accountability/ ownership for what is said.

Kill Section 230. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_230