This article was originally published in the Line.
By Peter Menzies, September 5, 2023
One day, Millennials may sit grandchildren upon their knees and speak, in hushed and reverent tones, of a time long ago when people could express an opinion on the internet without fear of sanction by the state or its proxies.
They will likely get the same curious looks of wonder and disbelief inspired by Boomers’ timeworn tales of writing university papers on something called a “typewriter.” It’s like: “wow, you must be really old, huh?”
So old, indeed, that we remember when the world was celebrating the downfall of tyrants in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere thanks to what all progressive people believed was the wonderful, democratizing and unfettered influence of the internet and its social networks.
“Dictatorships are now more vulnerable than they have ever been before, in part – but not entirely – because of the devolution of power from the nation state to the individual,” swooned Alec Ross, one of U.S. secretary of state Hilary Clinton’s advisors just over a dozen years ago following the Arab Spring. He described the internet as the “Che Guevera of the 21st Century.”
But then along came the bots and the algorithms. Lots of Ross’s free individuals — little Che’s, if you will — voted for Brexit and started electing the likes of Boris Johnson, Giogia Meloni and Donald Trump. The fault for this was laid squarely at the door of social media and its ability to spread “#fakenews” faster than an Okanagan wildfire. Faced with declining societal trust indices and baskets of deplorables making unsupervised decisions, the Nation State started to fight back.
Many, if not all, institutional leaders (for whom it is inconceivable that they could be at fault for plummeting public confidence) have tied social media to the whipping post. Meanwhile, governments everywhere are rebuilding the ramparts.
Canada, which has already introduced two pieces of highly-contentious legislation that impact internet and press freedom, is among them. We have already passed Bills C-11 and C-18, which ought to raise the freighted question among political observers: what is next? We already have some inkling of what’s to come, and it’s been titled the Online Harms Act.
But first, let’s take a peek at what’s happening elsewhere that could inspire our own home-grown version of this bill.
Paivi Rasanen, a Finnish politician, former chair of its Christian Democrats and a medical doctor, went on trial for a second time Aug. 31 for something she posted on social media in 2019. In that Tweet (or X-post as we call them these days) she quoted from the Bible to support her views on traditional marriage and, for her efforts, was charged with “ethnic agitation”, under the section of “war crimes and crimes against humanity” in the Finnish criminal code.
Acquitted a year ago by a district court, she and a Lutheran bishop were re-tried before the Helsinki Court of Appeal after prosecutors refused to accept defeat. At the time of writing, no verdict was returned.
In Britain, police have been keeping a database of people who have expressed views that could link them to something called a “non-crime hate incident.” And six former police officers have been charged under the UK’s Communications Act based on offensive and racist conversations that took place between them in private on WhatsApp years after they had retired.
The accused were charged under a section of the act that forbids “offensive” and “threatening” messages sent over a public electronic communications network. Since social media’s advent, this law has been used regularly to prosecute objectionable public behaviour on Twitter and Facebook. Now these involve private conversations within a restricted chat group. The trial commences Sept. 7.
In New Zealand, social media companies Google, Meta, Amazon, TikTok and Twitter/X recently avoided direct government supervision by “voluntarily” signing up to adhere to a code of conduct. On the face of it, this is not dissimilar in principle to Canada’s “voluntary” content censorship regime — the Broadcast Standards Council — that acts as a proxy for the CRTC in regulating speech and ensuring it is of “high standard.” A notable difference is that compliance with the New Zealand code — which is inspired by online “safety” regulations adopted in Australia and the European Union — is to be overseen by a “new multi-stakeholder governance” group.
The Irish, no strangers to social strife, are also weighing in. Big time.
Legislators on the Emerald Isle recently passed the Online Safety and Media Regulation Act along with a new hate speech law and granted sweeping new powers to its Electoral Commission to crack down on “misinformation” following passage of its Electoral Reform Act last year. That’s some serious gate-keeping.
A recent exchange with Irish media (here) outlined how that commission intends to interpret its assigned task of defining the truth during elections.
According to Justice Marie Baker of the commission, the conflict at hand is between the right to freedom of expression and the “right” not to be misinformed — even though the latter right doesn’t actually exist.
As Baker noted to media, Ireland’s electoral commissioners will now be taking on the roles of philosophers while they define what truth is, a function former Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez indicated could fall to a “Digital Safety Commissioner” in Canada.
We should learn in the weeks ahead when Rodriguez’s successor, Pascale St Onge, plans to introduce Canada’s Online Harms bill. If you thought the uproars over the Online Streaming Act (bill C-11) and the Online News Act (bill C-18) were wild rides, strap yourselves in for this one.
And try to behave. Those problematic UK’s coppers are looking at fines and six months in jail. Rasanen and the bishop are facing tens of thousands of Euros in fines and as much as two years in prison. Violation of the new Irish “hate speech” law is worth up to five years behind bars.
The Nation State is back. And it means business.
Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, past vice-chair of the CRTC and a former newspaper publisher.