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Christine Van Geyn: Canada’s new heritage minister has a chance to undo some damage

Commentary

Canada has a new minister of Canadian Heritage and an opportunity to go back to the drawing board on controversial and likely unconstitutional proposals to regulate the internet.

Earlier this week, Pablo Rodriguez was sworn in as Canada’s minister of Canadian Heritage. Rodriguez is a veteran Member of Parliament with past experience in the portfolio, in contrast to his predecessor, Steven Guilbeault, a relative political neophyte who came to politics as an ideological activist and struggled with three high profile initiatives in his department.

Guilbeault took what struck many observers as extreme and ideological positions on internet regulation, as well as a restrictive view of freedom of expression. Rodriguez now has an opportunity to undo some of that damage.

Let’s start with some level setting. The Trudeau government has inherited a set of issues around broadcasting, communications, Canadian content, and the growing role of internet-based content (including the rise of social media) that requires serious policy thinking. The asymmetrical treatment between traditional broadcasters and over-the-top streaming services is merely one example of where Canada’s laws and policies arguably ought to be modernized.

The problem, though, is that, under Minister Guilbeault’s tenure, the government’s approach tended towards new and more government regulations, less choice and dynamism in the marketplace, and greater control over Canadians’ individual internet usage. It’s no surprise that this top-down agenda galvanized Canadians and produced a massive backlash.

The recent federal election halted some key pieces of legislation. The combination of time, perspective, and a change in minister ought to permit the government to revisit its controversial proposals. In particular, incoming Minister Rodriguez should deviate from his predecessor in three specific ways.

First, he should halt any government plans to reintroduce what was formerly Bill C-10, a proposal to amend the Broadcasting Act. This law would, among other things, mandate online streaming services (think Netflix for instance) to fund and promote Canadian content, in the way the CRTC has required legacy media to do for decades.

This law, most controversially, though, would have even applied to user generated content like YouTube videos or TikToks. Minister Guilbeault had stated that users with a large social media presence could even be considered “broadcasters” and thus subject to government oversight and regulation.

This is seriously wrong-headed. Few policy goals can be served by ranking Canadian cat videos higher than American cat videos. If C-10 is reintroduced, at minimum, it must be made clear that the new law will not apply to user-generated content.

Second, Rodriguez should reformulate the joint Canadian Heritage/Justice legislation related to hate speech, formerly called Bill C-36.

Although hate speech is already prohibited by the Criminal Code, Bill C-36 as drafted would have further expanded how speech is regulated. As an example: Bill C-36 proposed the creation of a statutory definition of “hate speech.” The new, proposed definition included speech that would be “likely to foment vilification or detestation.” This is hardly a clarification.

The definition remains broad and subjective, and would impact the ability of Canadians to engage in debate on subjects that are unsettled. As the Canadian Constitutional Foundation’s Executive Director, Joanna Baron, laid out in a previous article for The Hub, public conversation around transgender rights and the criticism of religion show the dangers of “concept creep,” whereby the line between healthy criticism and encouraging violence seems to have become increasingly blurred.

And equally troubling was Bill C-36’s proposed creation of a new civil remedy for hate speech. The civil remedy would allow people to bring anonymous complaints to the country’s human rights commissions at no cost to the complainant, complete with monetary penalties up to $50,000.

Giving government and unelected tribunal bureaucrats even greater control over Canadians’ expression would erode our fundamental rights. While hate speech is abhorrent and must be condemned, Bill C-36 would cause a whole new set of harms. The balance is all wrong, and this legislation should be rethought entirely.

Few policy goals can be served by ranking Canadian cat videos higher than American cat videos.

The third priority for Minister Rodriguez should be to take his predecessor’s proposal to regulate “online harms” back to the drawing table completely. The new proposal is not yet a law, or even a bill. It was released just prior to the election in the form of a technical paper and discussion guide, and the public was asked to submit comments to the government.

The government has not disclosed any of the comments that it has received to date, and does not appear to have plans to do so, which itself is a major transparency problem that the new minister should rectify.

The “online harm” proposal is intended to regulate content of online media platforms, like Facebook Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok and PornHub for five specific types of content: (1) terrorism content; (2) incitement of violence; (3) hate speech; (4) non-consensual intimate images (sometimes called “revenge porn”); and (5) childhood sexual exploitation imagery (sometimes called “child porn”).

This content is all clearly repugnant, and it is also already illegal. But the Guilbeault proposal, which, among other things, imposes new rules, obligations, and fines on these companies would not only fail to solve the problems caused by these types of abhorrent content but would also have serious effects on individual rights.

It makes little sense to regulate these types of content the same way. Hate speech, as outlined above, has a much more subjective definition than childhood sexual abuse or terrorism. Regulations to deal with these types of harm should be properly tailored, and the government’s proposal was not.

It also included a requirement that platforms identify and respond to content flagged by users within 24 hours. For many platforms, however, much of the most concerning type of content, like childhood sexual abuse imagery, is already removed automatically through artificial intelligence which uses a technology called “hashing” that identifies these types of images and blocks them before they can even be posted.

But for more subjective content, like hate speech, it’s easily foreseeable that users of these platforms will over-report content they don’t like as “hate speech.” Even if it does not rise to the level of hate speech, this reporting will trigger the 24-hour requirement for the platform to address the content.

If a platform fails to block or remove content they can be subject to penalties, which run as high as three percent of global revenue or $10 million dollars. In some situations, penalties can run as high as $25 million.

Given the severity of the penalties, platforms are likely to err on the side of just taking down content when there has been a complaint. This will result in a lot of non-criminal content being taken down, and this ostensibly has freedom of expression implications.

Germany has a 24-hour takedown requirement called the Network Enforcement Law. YouTube has published a transparency report outlining how they comply with the German law. The vast majority of complaints relate to hate speech, not other types of harmful content. And of the reported content, 85 per cent did not violate either the German law or YouTube’s community guidelines.

The German law is now subject to a legal challenge by Google for violating rights related to data protection as well as the German constitution and European law. The Guilbeault proposal is similar, and is also likely unconstitutional. Now is an opportunity for incoming Minister Rodriguez to walk it back.

Minister Guilbeault’s major initiatives consistently erred on the side of new and greater government control over internet content and Canadian’s individual expression. Canadians should expect and demand better of his replacement.

Matt Spoke: Our short-sighted politicians have yet to glimpse Bitcoin’s big potential

Commentary

Although I’m a political layman, I’m familiar enough with Canada’s parliamentary system to understand the intended dynamics of a governing party and an opposition. 

In theory, opposition parties exist to challenge the government on its decisions and actions and hold it accountable for its results. Within this system of government, we should expect debates on ideas for how our government should fulfill its responsibilities with respect to its citizens. We should also expect that governments be held accountable for failure, if a valid alternative is ready to step up and govern in its place.

Debates should focus on fiscal policy, immigration, infrastructure, defence, foreign affairs etc.

But key to any debate is two sides taking opposing views on issues, and one of the challenges that seems to be occurring in Canada today is that our three major political parties sound exactly the same on many of the key issues facing Canada.

Their stated differences are primarily focused on credibility, relatability, and trust rather than substantive differences in policy. 

On issues of fiscal policy—and monetary policy by extension (apologies to Mr. Trudeau for having no time to think on this one)—all three of our political parties are falling short of providing a substantive opposition to a de facto consensus of increased debt and increased spending, and increased inflation as a result. 

So where does that leave the millions of Canadians who are legitimately concerned about the economic trajectory we’re on? If we’re not finding adequate opposition representing these concerns in Parliament, then maybe we look elsewhere.

Enter Bitcoin.

If you’re inclined to roll your eyes at this point, you may soon be in the minority. While only four percent of American adults over 55 years of age own cryptocurrency today, already over a third of Americans aged 35-44 own cryptocurrency (likely a similar figure in Canada), and that number is trending up.

Earlier this month, there was a great piece published in the American publication National Affairs, titled Bitcoin and the U.S. Fiscal Reckoning. The author, Avik Roy, makes a compelling case for why the U.S. should take a positive and encouraging stance towards the Bitcoin and cryptocurrency industry, arguing that it could be the fuel that drives the next wave of American economic growth.

But more interestingly, his analysis outlines how important Bitcoin will become as a system of government accountability, or a hedge against short-sighted government fiscal policy and central banks’ reactions in the way of inflationary monetary policy.

In essence, until very recently, citizens did not have much choice but to slowly be dragged into the consequences of governments who overspend, underdeliver, and have no sense of responsibility for the long-term consequences of their actions. 

This reality would likely look extremely similar whether we had a Liberal, Conservative, or NDP government in Ottawa. In fact, this will likely be the reality of most developed countries in the coming decade. 

More than 20 percent of American hedge funds now own Bitcoin.

That said, what most politicians and economists have failed to factor in is the decentralizing power of Bitcoin. 

For the first time ever, in a period of sustained economic decline citizens will have a choice to place their trust in something other than their government. Larger and larger portions of individual and corporate assets will shift from treasury bonds to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. 

This is already happening today, if you’re paying attention. 

More than 20 percent of American hedge funds now own Bitcoin. The millions of consumers who hold Wealthsimple and Mogo accounts in Canada can now buy and trade Bitcoin. Billions of dollars are held within our publicly traded Bitcoin funds in Canada. And this shift will only accelerate. 

What Canada’s policymakers need to recognize is the incredibly rare opportunity this creates for Canada. Unlike our American cousins, our dollar is not the world’s reserve currency. We do not have to worry about decisions that might impact the global standing of the Canadian dollar to the same degree. 

With a few small policy prescriptions, Canada could ensure that we disproportionately capture a competitive share of the Bitcoin market and its related innovations. This should, at minimum, include a decision to add Bitcoin to our national treasury; slowly at first, but with a view to maintain some proportion that represents Bitcoin’s standing against global fiat currencies (Bitcoin is valued at more than $1T USD).

And now back to our short-sighted overspending politicians. You should be excited about welcoming a new taxable asset class and hyper growth industry into Canada that can fund your unlimited election promises. All you need to do is get out of the way.