The Road to Digital Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

Screens depicting surveillance

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 and 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 a trio of bills currently before Parliament — Bill C-26, An Act Respecting Cyber Security; Bill S-210, the Protecting Young Persons from Exposure to Pornography Act; and Bill C-63, the Online Harms Act — each ostensibly designed to protect us from such harms — instead illustrate how proposed cures can be worse than the disease itself.

Together, this legislative triad would grant the government sweeping new powers to censor and censure, and to undermine not only individuals’ privacy, freedom and security but also 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, members of Parliament (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. 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 multi-billion-dollar age verification industry. France and Australia have already explored similar legislation and concluded that 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 to 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 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.

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 exacerbate 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 that 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, while making everyone a potential target of aggressors and opportunists seeking to silence critical thought.

Thirty-five years after Sir 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?

This article first appeared in Canada’s National Observer.

Topic tags:
Surveillance, Privacy, Encryption, Government