Liberals’ proposed online harms bill slammed in ‘secret’ submissions from tech companies, telecoms

The submissions said the bill could be used for censorship, as a ‘tactic’ by political parties, and a joint response by the telecoms warned of government overreach

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Responses to the Liberal government’s proposed online harms bill from companies including Microsoft, Twitter and Canadian telecoms are among the hundreds of submissions Canadian Heritage refused to release.

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Previously withheld feedback includes a document from Twitter that warned the proposed framework involving proactive monitoring of content “sacrifices freedom of expression to the creation of a government run system of surveillance of anyone who uses Twitter.”

The submissions said the bill could be used for censorship, as a “tactic” by political parties, and a joint response by the telecoms warned of government overreach in asking for subscribers’ private information without judicial authorization.

The bill has now been sent to an expert advisory panel for review after the government acknowledged the response to its initial proposal was “predominantly critical.”

But the government refused to release the 422 submissions it received. Only those submissions that stakeholders chose to release themselves were available to public and media. Many of those warned the proposal as outlined would infringe privacy and breach Charter rights.

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The National Post has now obtained the full text of the submissions through an access to information request. Most of those, 350, were from individuals, and the rest mostly from academics, industry and civil society organizations.

The online harms bill would take aim at online posts in five categories — terrorist content, content that incites violence, hate speech, intimate images shared non-consensually, and child sexual exploitation content.

Platforms would be required to proactively monitor posts and given 24 hours to take down illegal content after it was flagged. The bill would create a new regulator called the Digital Safety Commissioner of Canada that would be in charge of enforcement.

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In its submission, Twitter said the government’s proposal lacks even “the most basic procedural fairness requirements you might expect from a government-run system such as notice and warning.” It added that the “requirement to ‘share’ information at the request of the Crown is also deeply troubling.”

The platform also warned that the ability to flag content will be misused. It said flagging would be “used as a political tactic.”

“As lived during the recent Canadian federal election, a general approach to flagging will result in censorship,” Twitter said, explaining that throughout the election campaign, political parties and officials attempted to have content flagged as harmful “in an effort to have it removed from public discourse or score political points.”

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In its submission, Microsoft told the government that it shouldn’t be up to private companies to determine what’s illegal.

“Service providers should not be required to proactively monitor user content, nor decide whether particular content is unlawful,” it said. “Elected officials and independent courts — not private companies — should be the decision-makers on what content is illegal.”

The company also said it was concerned the proposal “could have disproportionate impacts on freedom of expression and other fundamental human rights.”  Microsoft warned about the precedent the legislation could set, and cautioned its impacts “will be felt both inside Canada and internationally, particularly if countries without strong democratic institutions point to Canada’s approach in defense of regulatory frameworks within their borders that are used to crack down on internet speech or other human rights.”

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Pinterest also weighed in on the consultation. Though it acknowledged its platform “is not a place for politics” and said that it’s not focused on fostering free expression, the company warned about the implications the proposed bill could have on “law-abiding Internet users.”

“The requirement to take down unlawful content on 24-hours notice, for example, will provide many small or medium-sized platforms with little time to assess potentially complex legal claims,” it said.

“The strong incentive will be simply to take down any content that is alleged to violate the law, in order to avoid legal risk.”

Canada’s largest telecoms also wrote to the government in a joint submission. Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Telus, Cogeco and Quebecor said they were strongly in support of the government’s move to exempt telecoms from the new legislation.

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But the submission noted concern about a section of the proposal that stated the government was considering requiring entities like internet service providers that report child abuse materials to provide basic customer information, such as name and address, without law enforcement having to go to the courts to obtain production orders for that information.

The telecoms said the government “should not require ISPs to provide basic subscriber information or transmission data without judicial authorization. It is not clear that eliminating the need for judicial authorization would be justified when weighed against the need to protect the privacy interests and constitutional rights of Canadians.”

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has indicated the government is open to completely reworking the bill. He’s given the expert advisory group two months to do its work, including additional stakeholder consultations. ““We want to get this right. And … together we will get this right,” he told reporters in March.


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