Groups surprised at government 'secrecy' over online harm bill consultation

·5 min read
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is responsible for the pending online harms legislation. Advocacy groups and individuals who participated in the consultation say they're surprised the government decided not to make the feedback public. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is responsible for the pending online harms legislation. Advocacy groups and individuals who participated in the consultation say they're surprised the government decided not to make the feedback public. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Some advocacy groups and individuals who submitted feedback to the federal government about its proposed online harms legislation say they were surprised the government didn't make their consultation documents public, which would have ensured concerns about a "disturbing" and "extremely problematic" plan were heard widely.

The Liberal government laid out a blueprint last year for cracking down on harmful material posted online to platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. Under the proposed rules, a digital safety commissioner would help enforce a new regime that requires social media companies to weed out child pornography, terrorist content, hate speech and other harmful posts.

It would give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) expanded powers to obtain subscriber information from companies, and online platforms may also have to report some posts to police and security services.

Canadian Heritage began public consultation last summer, and an expert panel appointed by Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is now reviewing the topics in the plan and is looking for solutions.

It took me by surprise in a really negative way. - Michael Geist, Law professor

"I was surprised when I first submitted the consultation and it wasn't publicly posted," said Jenna Scholz, co-ordinator of government advocacy with Defend Dignity, a national organization that works to end sexual exploitation in Canada.

Scholz wrote the organization's submission to the government and says she was curious what other groups had to say about the proposed plan.

"I'm used to submitting for bills, and you can see what every stakeholder says."

WATCH | U of O prof explains why government's failure to disclose information matters:

"It is embarrassing," said Michael Geist, a law professor and University of Ottawa's Canada research chair in internet and e-commerce law, who also participated in the consultation.

Geist said he found the government's "secrecy" over the public consultation documents "odd," as his calls to make them public were to no avail.

We can't let the government risk worsening that pattern in the name of national security. - Fatema Abdalla, National Council of Canadian Muslims

"It took me by surprise in a really negative way when the government took the position that it was not going to disclose the submissions," said Geist.

The professor resorted to using the Access to Information and Privacy laws to retrieve 1,162 pages of raw public consultation feedback emails and letters, and posted them in late April on his blog. In it, he said "the entire consultation process is an absolute embarrassment to the government."

David Thurton/CBC
David Thurton/CBC

Earlier this year, Canadian Heritage released a summary of the feedback from the public. Though some groups and Canadians expressed support for the proposed regulations, the report said marginalized and racialized groups are particularly likely to be affected by the requirement to force tech companies to quickly remove content that is flagged as offensive.

But that summary report, Geist says, hardly captured the deep concerns raised by average citizens and various entities across Canada — representing Indigenous people, sex workers, children, various ethnic groups, civil liberties groups, universities and tech companies among others — who stated the proposed plan as it stands is "gravely, dangerously concerning," "extremely problematic," "horrible," "un-Canadian in a very deep and disturbing sense," and "an assault on freedom of expression."

Some even warned it can "inadvertently result in one of the most significant assaults on marginalized and racialized communities in years."

The department did not disclose names of the groups they consulted, generally referring to them as "respondents" in its summary document.

"[The government] significantly understated the extent of the public criticism," said Geist.

"The fact so many groups … came away deeply troubled and concerned over what it had in mind, I think really ought to serve as a wake-up call."

Groups want their voices heard

Fatema Abdalla, spokesperson for the Ottawa-based National Council of Canadian Muslims, said the organization is gravely concerned over the proposed legislation's use of the term "terrorist activity, terrorist content, and terrorism," and how it will disproportionately affect Muslims.

We will take the time we need to get this right. - Laura Scaffidi, Spokesperson for Heritage Minister

"These terms are the same terms that have led many Muslims to be impacted and marginalized as well as prosecuted and incarcerated post 9/11," she said.

"We can't let the government risk worsening that pattern in the name of national security."

Abdalla says Canadian Muslims who talk about Palestine, Afghanistan, or stand in solidarity with diverse movements could be wrongly targeted by such laws.

"I am hearing of that happening now ... I've seen it on Facebook, I've seen it on Instagram," she said.

WATCH | Group representing Muslims says legislation must strike right balance:

Scholz said her group is most concerned over the monolithic approach the plan takes to targeting the various harms — like hate speech and child pornography.

"Trying to couple all of those harms and take the exact same approach is really tough," she said. "I think each and every one of those needs to have a very diverse, specific approach."

Scholz said the government must also take steps to prevent non-consensual images being uploaded, and verify the people involved are of age and have consented, as it's often "too late" for victims once content is posted.

Shutterstock / Empirephotostock
Shutterstock / Empirephotostock

Privacy of participants behind decision: minister's office

The heritage minister's office sent CBC an emailed statement saying the submissions weren't made public to encourage participants to share sensitive information, should they wish to.

"This includes business information shared in confidence by industry stakeholders. It also includes perspectives and stories from victim groups, equity-deserving communities, and other parties who wished to share their experiences facing harms online privately," wrote spokesperson Laura Scaffidi.

"The government is conscious of these limitations and sensitive to the needs of those who participated in the consultation. That is why the government did not publish raw submissions to the consultation."

Scaffidi said obtaining the documents through Access to Information laws was "the appropriate framework," so that confidential information would be redacted and protected.

The minister's office said the expert advisory group will help advise on the future legislation to best address harmful content online.

"We will take the time we need to get this right."

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