Two bills recently introduced by the federal government are aimed at reducing online hate and putting some controls on the anarchic world of online commentary. Some, like Jewish community organizations, have been calling for stronger rules to deal with rampant online vitriol. Others, like civil liberties groups, balk at any incursions into unfettered expression. It might not matter anyway.
Bill C-36 is intended to crack down on online hate, something Jewish community advocates and many others have been supporting since a similar section of the Canadian Human Rights Act was repealed in 2013 over concerns around free expression. Groups like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have expressed apprehensions over the new bill, as they had over the repealed section.
The bill would make it an offence to make statements on the internet that are “likely to foment detestation or vilification of an individual or group of individuals on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.” It would target commentary that is “motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or any other similar factor.”
The bill defines hate as “the emotion that involves detestation or vilification and that is stronger than dislike or disdain,” and is not merely language that “discredits, humiliates, hurts or offends.”
A different piece of legislation, Bill C-10, is also aimed at online content. In this case, the government would require platforms, such as social media and video streaming sites, to enforce guidelines that extend Canadian content rules, which have long governed radio and TV, to the internet. Again, critics say this is an infringement on the freedom of expression.
Both bills attempt to walk a line between free speech and the government’s attempts to encourage particular outcomes. They are likely to please some and they are likely to offend many. Both are probably founded on the best intentions, but, as critics have pointed out, Canada already has hate-speech laws that apply online and off.
Given the chaotic efforts of social media companies themselves to enforce guidelines for conduct and to curtail hate speech, it is difficult to imagine how legislation would provide a clearer guide to online etiquette. More worrying is the possible chaos that human rights tribunals and courts might have thrust upon them if Canadians begin reporting thousands or millions of problematic online statements.
We should be wary of heavy-handedness not only because the proposed laws hand a lot of arbitrary decision-making power to government or judicial overseers, but also because it is unwise to bury hateful ideas. The best way to confront hate and extremism is to shine a light on it, not to force it onto emerging platforms created specifically to give shelter to the most extreme people and ideas.
However, this all might be moot because Parliament has recessed for the summer. If, as many speculate, a federal election is called before Parliament resumes, these pieces of legislation would die. If the Liberals were to be reelected, they could reintroduce the bills. Conservatives have charged that the two proposed laws are “virtue signaling,” as much about campaign fodder as substantive change. The NDP and Bloc voted in favour of Bill C-10, with the NDP asserting that the “modernization of the law is necessary for [the] cultural ecosystem.”
Whatever the fate of these two bills, the fight against hate (online and off) will continue. We have long contended that the most powerful response to hateful words is more words – words that heal and educate. The online world is a jungle of facts and fictions, wonder and woe, insights and insanity. It is, perhaps, like the larger world, only condensed onto a small screen that amplifies the most fringe and sensational voices. Criminalizing those voices may or may not bring the result most of us seek, which is a kinder world. That said, contesting the worst of the online world is a Sisyphean task that we cannot abandon.
The medium is the message, said Marshall McLuhan, who died long before ordinary people heard the word “internet.” The anonymity and unruliness of the internet has no doubt helped to create a toxicity in our culture. But, while we should take seriously dangerous ideas online, we should remember that these are symptoms of strains in society and not solely products of the technology. Addressing online hate demands returning to first things and addressing all forms of hatred and division in our society. Fixing the online dialogue demands changing minds – and that has been the challenge since long before the advent of the internet.