Canada: Committee tightens the noose on freedom of speech

House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights makes new recommendations 

Thursday 15 August - In May, Canada launched a so-called Digital Charter, meant to promote 'trust in a digital world'. The charter contains ten principles, three of which deal with 'hate speech and disinformation'.

The charter, said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, will target fake news and hate speech online. 'The platforms are failing their users, and they're failing our citizens,' he said.

'They have to step up in a major way to counter disinformation. And if they don't, we will hold them to account and there will be meaningful financial consequences.'

'The Government of Canada,' the charter says, 'will defend freedom of expression and protect against online threats and disinformation designed to undermine the integrity of elections and democratic institutions.'

'Canadians can expect that digital platforms will not foster or disseminate hate, violent extremism or criminal content."

'There will be clear, meaningful penalties,' it adds, 'for violations of the laws and regulations that support these principles.'

As has become standard in such cases, the charter contains no definition of what constitutes 'hate', making it a catchall for whatever the Canadian government deems politically inopportune.

This is all exhaustingly familiar by now: Germany already has legislation that requires social media platforms to censor their users. Social media companies are obliged to delete or block any online 'criminal offenses' within 24 hours of receipt of a user complaint; the German government can fine them up to 50 million euros for failing to comply with the law. France is working on it.

The Digital Charter was launched the week after Canada signed the 'Christchurch Call to Action' - yet another government-led drive for more censorship in the name of fighting "terrorist and violent extremist content online".

Canada already has hate speech laws in its criminal code, according to which anyone who publicly 'incites [or willfully promotes] hatred against any "identifiable group" commits an indictable offence'. 

The 'identifiable group' includes 'any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or mental or physical disability'.

To some, however, the criminal code on hate speech is apparently not enough. 

After hearing a large number of witnesses, the majority of the Committee suggested that Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act be reinstated.

Section 13 was a very controversial provision, repealed in 2013 under the Stephen Harper government after being criticized by free-speech advocates for enabling censorship on the internet.

Crucially, the committee also demands that police forces and other 'agents of the state' who work with hate crimes must 'reflect the racial, religious, LGBTQ and general diversity of the populations they represent.'

'Police forces, particularly their hate crimes units, must work collaboratively alongside civil society organizations'.

A similar cooperative model with civil society organizations already exists in the UK, where the discredited civil society organization "Tell Mama", for instance, has operated in cooperation with British police.

Furthermore, in order to 'prevent online hate', the Canadian government 'should educate the population as to what on the Internet constitutes hate'.

The Conservative members of the committee were against reintroducing the repealed section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. They recommended instead that sanctions regarding hate crimes online or elsewhere should be dealt with under the appropriate sections of the Criminal Code.

They also recommended that 'The definition of "hate" under the Criminal Code be limited to where a threat of violence, or incitement to violence, is directed against an identifiable group' and that 'rather than attempting to control speech and ideas, the Government explore appropriate security measures to address all three elements of a threat: intent, capability and opportunity'.

Editor's comment - Any new legislation needs very careful consideration of the definition of terms used. Canada's liberal government would use the legislation to kill free speech; the Conservative opposition have at least tried to highlight the importance of defining the terms to be used. Of course, we have a similar situation in the UK with the problematic definition of 'Islamophobia' as proposed by a similar 'All-Party Parliamentary Committee'.

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