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Joel Bakan is a law professor at University of British Columbia. Mr. Bakan is suing Twitter and Canada. The suit against Canada calls on the government to introduce legislation and promote regulations that protect constitutional freedom of speech.The Globe and Mail

The Vancouver-based writer of the documentary The Corporation and its sequel has filed a lawsuit against Twitter Inc. , arguing that the tech company overstepped its right to arbitrate free speech on its platform when it refused to publish a paid tweet promoting his new film.

Joel Bakan, law professor at the University of British Columbia, author and documentary writer, and legal representative Sujit Choudhry have also filed a suit against the Canadian government, calling for stronger guidelines to establish the responsibilities of technology platforms.

They say the suit, in challenging Twitter’s refusal to post the Tweet, could have widespread implications.

“This is a Canadian story, but this could also be a German story, it could be an Indian story, or it could be a South African story,” Mr. Choudhry said. “We hope this is a precedent-setting case, globally.”

The cases were filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on Monday. The challenges join growing concerns over the ability of large technology companies to control speech, and government’s role in regulating them.

A representative of Twitter declined to comment on the case.

Mr. Bakan wrote the book The New Corporation, published in 2020, on which the new documentary is based. It is a sequel to The Corporation, released in 2004. Both analyze the role of large corporations globally and the ways they affect privacy, politics, climate change and other major social issues.

The promotional team for the film wanted to share a trailer on Twitter using a paid promotion last November.

“If you want your tweets to be seen by a very large number of people, then you have to purchase a promoted tweet or an ad,” Mr. Choudhry said. “And so if Twitter doesn’t let you post this promoted tweet or an ad, because of its policies, then that’s a severe restriction of freedom of expression.”

Twitter rejected the two-minute documentary trailer, telling the promotional team it broke several terms of service, including its political content policy, cause-based advertising policy, inappropriate content policy and targeting of sensitive categories policy. Twitter notes in its civic integrity policy that it globally prohibits the promotion of political content.

“We define political content as content that references a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome,” reads the policy.

The lawsuit says a representative of Twitter did not indicate what content in the ad violated the policies.

The promotional team said they repeatedly asked for further explanation, as they did not feel the trailer had broken any of these rules, according to the lawsuit.

“There’s no reason why Twitter should have banned this trailer,” Mr. Choudhry said.

Mr. Bakan said he believes the ad was initially rejected by artificial intelligence – raising the question of AI’s role in arbitrating public discourse. However, he said the discussions with Twitter representatives that followed failed to provide an adequate reason his trailer was refused.

Mr. Bakan noted that these decisions about Canadian content were made outside of Canada, calling into question the nation’s ability to regulate content in public forums serving the country.

“Twitter being allowed, arbitrarily, to decide from California who can say what is really problematic, and as we argue, illegal,” Mr. Bakan said. Twitter is headquartered in San Francisco.

Twitter plays an important role as an expansive democratic forum, Mr. Bakan said in an interview, noting that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has 5.6 million Twitter followers and uses the platform as a primary communications tool.

The suit against Canada calls on the government to introduce legislation and promote regulations that protect constitutional freedom of speech, on Twitter and other social-media platforms similarly functioning as public arenas for political, social, governmental and democratic expressive activity.

“We’re arguing that, under the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms], the government of Canada has an obligation to regulate Twitter, and to require it to abide by free-speech principles,” Mr. Bakan said. “That’s an argument that is adventurous and novel, but also very much grounded in precedents in Canadian constitutional law.”

Mr. Choudhry added : “Quite frankly, governments should have started acting here a long time ago.”

Camille Gagné-Raynauld, a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, declined to comment because the matter is before the courts.

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