Justin Ling is a freelance investigative journalist and writes the Bug-eyed and Shameless newsletter.
The Webbys aren’t exactly the Oscars, but in 2016, the media mogul Kim Kardashian had the honour of being the inaugural winner of the Break the Internet Award. Thanks to her enormous following (and a mega-viral bodacious magazine cover), the world’s most prestigious internet awards recognized Ms. Kardashian’s gift for monopolizing the public eye. “Nude selfies ‘til I die,” she proclaimed in her five-word acceptance speech.
No one else has won the prize since. But I would like to nominate Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in recognition of his government’s own efforts to break the internet – that is, to destroy the free and decentralized world wide web. But whereas Ms. Kardashian’s success comes from intimately understanding what makes the internet great, Mr. Trudeau doesn’t seem to understand it at all. Or, judging by a legislative agenda that seems stuck in the dial-up era, he simply doesn’t care.
The Online Streaming Act, or Bill C-11, has garnered the most scrutiny to date. The bill, which passed Parliament last week and has become law, allows the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to require platforms such as Spotify and YouTube to produce and promote Canadian content, as it does for radio and television stations. Bill C-11 will meddle with Canadians’ ability to pick their own content and content creators’ business, in the name of “protecting the economic interests of a niche of Canada’s music and video industries,” according to the Canadian arm of the Internet Society. In a scathing submission, the non-profit group argues that “Bill C-11 seeks to turn the Internet into a mere extension of the Canadian broadcasting system – a dying artifact of 20th Century technologies.”
Then there’s C-18, the Online News Act. Ostensibly about rectifying the effects that dirt-cheap online advertising has had on newspapers’ bottom lines, it forces companies such as Meta and Google to negotiate compensation agreements with Canadian news outlets – and if they can’t come to a deal, the CRTC has been empowered to impose one. Essentially, a tax on news stories shared to these platforms; the digital advocacy group Openmedia calls it “a shakedown.” The group estimates the bill is also likely to produce modest returns for big broadcasters, and peanuts for the local outlets struggling the most.
Over its decade in power, the Trudeau government has upped sin taxes on alcohol, cigarettes, and carbon – and now it can add news to the list. But if journalism becomes more expensive for Twitter than cat memes, we can expect that our news feeds will feature fewer hard-hitting investigations and a lot more felines asking if they can haz cheeseburger. Meta and Google have already promised to restrict Canadians’ access to news if C-18 passes.
“We can’t turn back the clock on the Internet,” OpenMedia argued. “Few people want the old centralized information system back, and trying to force advertising revenue back into a version of the old model is doomed to fail and will produce many new problems.”
But the worst offender of all may be the bill the Liberals haven’t tabled yet.
In 2021, the Trudeau government announced it would launch a crackdown of the four horsemen of “online harms” – child sexual exploitation, hate speech, terrorist propaganda and disinformation – all in one go. Major websites would, upon receiving a complaint, need “to make that harmful content inaccessible to persons in Canada,” according to a government white paper. Ottawa proposed a veritable A-team of new digital czars to undertake the project, including a new digital safety commissioner. Also included in the proposal were new powers for security services to obtain Canadians’ personal information.
When Ottawa held consultations on the plan, it was widely panned. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association wrote that outsourcing enforcement of hate speech and terrorist propaganda to a bunch of U.S. companies, with decisions reviewable only by a committee of political appointees, was a catastrophically bad idea. “Even judges who are trained in statutory interpretation and constitutional law may disagree about what falls on the right or wrong side of the line with respect to these types of content,” the CCLA wrote. Indigenous groups, meanwhile, were alarmed at the proposal to give security services even more power to surveil them online.
Ottawa, though, remained unperturbed by all this criticism. It published a “what we heard” report, claiming Canadians were “largely supportive” – though we only know that because lawyer Michael Geist filed an access to information request for the submissions.
The Liberals kept consulting. An expert panel was less than enthusiastic. Academics warned against policing misinformation, and were split on the idea of forcing companies to remove content. Then came more consultations: This time, with regular folks across the country, who apparently supported policing online misinformation – if we are to trust yet another “what we heard” report. It seems the Liberals are intent on consulting until they hear what they want to hear.
The bill is expected before the end of the year, and will reportedly include measures to keep anyone under 18 from seeing nudity on the internet by legally requiring porn websites to check users’ IDs. This plan is even more absurd than a 2013 effort by notoriously prudish Conservative MP Joy Smith to install smut filters on the home networks of every Canadian. “Free porn is the equivalent of me standing outside a school and giving out cigarettes and alcohol,” anti-porn activist Gail Dines said at the time.
Back then, people laughed – not because anyone is keen to hand out pornography to children, but because the idea of regulating the internet like a convenience-store magazine aisle was absurd.
Well, nobody is laughing now.
Some major websites, such as Montreal-based Pornhub, may abide. But without meaningful enforcement plans, thousands of others will not. And there is no sensible way to enforce it. No sooner will Ottawa have counted the scofflaws than more will come online.
Individually, all these ideas are bad. Taken together, they’re worse.
Mr. Trudeau’s plans amount to a Rube Goldberg machine, shaking down Silicon Valley companies for cash while subjecting them to a gauntlet of Ottawa-based Star Chambers every time the platforms’ users act badly. In trying to Canadianize the internet, it will destroy what makes it incredible: Its neutrality, its supranationality, its chaos.
Mr. Trudeau may describe these future regulations as a “duty of care” to Canadians. But that’s an unworkable proposition. Meta’s business model is not about looking after its users; it is harvesting their data. Former Facebook engineer Frances Haugen leaked documents that showed how the company earned advertising dollars by serving content that makes them angry. Canadian law won’t change that profit motive; it will simply demand that they ban certain words.
Worse yet, regulating these companies will only entrench their oligopolistic position. Stamping these platforms as “safe” just because they aren’t an Islamic State hangout is an endorsement they do not deserve. We do not need state-sanctioned social media: We need the creative destruction that will spur competition. Young people are already fleeing Facebook in droves and rejecting unhealthy beauty and lifestyle standards on Instagram and TikTok by “deinfluencing.” There is a bevy of online startups which bake privacy and safety into their design, and they will not be well-served by a regulatory regime adapted to the current system’s toxic particulars.
These regulations also fail to account for the good actors. Reddit, for example, entrusts communities to set and enforce their own rules, and allows users to rank content; one study has shown that Reddit’s users are the most resilient to misinformation. It’s hard to imagine that micromanaging from Ottawa, second-guessing community decisions or demanding more upvotes for vanilla Canadiana such as The Beachcombers will make that platform better.
The new rules will fail to capture the bad actors. Take the video-sharing site Rumble, for example: It is a hotbed for COVID-19 misinformation and antisemitic conspiracy theories. Founded in Toronto, it has already fled to Florida – citing, in part, C-11. “Good riddance,” many of us might say. But it is likely to use its evasion of these rules as a selling point: Why log on to the Ottawa-regulated YouTube when you can get the “unvarnished truth” on Rumble? Evasion of government moderation is always a rhetorical selling point for self-proclaimed skeptics.
Pre-Elon Musk Twitter, for instance, banned scores of accounts involved in election denial conspiracy theories and the Jan. 6 insurrection. This so-called “great deplatforming” sent tens of thousands of users fleeing to the far-right microblogging platform Gab. You would think that a mass exodus of far-right accounts would leave Twitter better off, but not so, according to a study published in the Journal of Quantitative Description: Digital Media. After the mass ban, the researchers observed an explosion in hate speech on Gab and on Twitter. Worse, the discourse on Gab intensified from merely hateful to downright extreme. Good work, everyone.
There is already an intense paranoia around Silicon Valley giants’ moderation practices. It will get significantly worse if it is Mr. Trudeau deciding what content must go offline.
Rather than download responsibility to bad corporate actors, we should start by holding individuals responsible for illegal content. A death threat is not a thing to be censored; it is a crime to be investigated. We have become either so deferential or distrustful of our police departments that we would rather try and mess with the entire internet than demand they do their jobs.
If police need new powers, we can have that debate. But law enforcement has long tried to use legitimate fears around online terrorism and child sexual exploitation to advocate for getting long-sought-after powers. The Liberals seem all too happy to oblige.
Platforms should not get a pass for hosting revenge porn and child pornography: They should face civil liability for failing to take offline this illegal content. We could further expand existing tools, designed to tackle copyright infringement, to suppress this odious material, instead of designing a ridiculous new system.
We can improve all major online platforms by requiring transparency. Forcing Meta to make its algorithms accessible, for example, could help us understand why its platforms have become so toxic; the European Union is already pursuing this line of attack. We can go further by beefing up our privacy laws, even legislating Canadians’ financial ownership of their data. This could strike at the heart of the perverse profit motive that drives many of the internet’s worst actors.
Unfortunately, Mr. Trudeau has heard all of these criticisms before; he just doesn’t seem to care. He has found another set of wedges to use against his political opponents and apparently can’t be bothered with the consequences.
That’s why the opposition needs to band together to stop these measures. We can find new audiences for Quebecois content, better fund our news outlets, address the harms of online child sexual exploitation, and crack down on the scourge of digital harassment – and we can do it all without wrecking the internet as we know it.