Americans must have breathed a huge sigh of relief last year when the Biden administration announced they were pausing plans for a “disinformation governance board.” As a Canadian, I’m here to warn you against getting too comfortable.
Canadians made the mistake of taking free speech for granted. Now, President Biden’s friend, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is close to having new laws in place that would expand government regulation of online speech in Canada. In fact, Biden will be traveling to Canada later this month on an official state visit. For the sake of the United States, here’s hoping that Biden doesn’t get any ideas from Trudeau.
The Canadian legislation in question is known as Bill C-11, or the Online Streaming Act. Ostensibly a way to prioritize the “needs and interests” of Canadians, the Trudeau administration claims the act will ensure online algorithms promote Canadian content on social media and streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+ and Spotify. Yet when a multi-partisan group of Canadian Senators proposed an amendment to the legislation to protect what individual citizens say on social media from government oversight and regulation, the Trudeau administration rejected the amendment.
Under the current iteration of the bill, user-generated content is included in the scope of government oversight. The bill also makes clear that the purpose of these new government powers is to “support countering disinformation.” It also specifically mentions serving the interests of “Canadians from racialized communities and Canadians of diverse ethnocultural backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, abilities and disabilities, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and ages.”
Taking these aspects of the legislation together, the Trudeau administration is asking the Canadian public to trust them with an unprecedented amount of control over the internet. As currently written, the law would grant federal government bureaucrats the power to deem a student’s YouTube channel insufficiently diverse, or to find a rapper’s music guilty of spreading “disinformation.” Everyday Canadians could have their social media and streaming accounts shutdown or shadowbanned for creating content that’s rejected by a government-controlled algorithm.
Canadians should not trust Justin Trudeau or any other politician with such power. Partisanship and the power to control media platforms don’t mix well.
I’ve dealt with that problem in my own career. Last year, the Toronto-based radio show that I hosted on the iHeartRadio talk network was terminated due to partisan biases at Bell Media. In legal filings, Bell Media admitted to ending the show because I did not defend Trudeau against criticisms made by callers and did not adequately attack a conservative member of parliament.
Such biases only undermine the public’s confidence in what they see and hear.
And it’s not just legacy media like Bell that offer a cautionary tale on how partisanship undermines public confidence. Elon Musk‘s Twitter Files echo the same point for social media. Matt Taibbi’s analysis of the Twitter Files has documented that Twitter was in contact with both Republicans and Democrats about censoring Twitter users in 2020. On face value, this could be seen as a non-partisan effort. But, as Taibbi noted, the system wasn’t balanced at all. “Because Twitter was and is overwhelmingly staffed by people of one political orientation, there were more channels, more ways to complain, open to the left (well, Democrats) than the right,” writes Taibbi, and this bias played out in which politicians and celebrities were targeted by Twitter’s censors.
There’s no reason to think that similar challenges wouldn’t be present in a government office that oversees algorithms, defines “disinformation,” and decides what constitutes “diversity.”
Even if the Trudeau administration drafts laws and policies that look nonpartisan on paper, the personal networks of government bureaucrats will inevitably introduce partisan biases in the way regulatory powers are used.
Americans were right to push back on Biden’s “disinformation governance board” and force him to back down. So far, Canadians haven’t been so lucky. If you can learn anything from what’s happening north of the border, it’s this: Free speech is precious. Never let it go unattended.
Jamil Jivani is a lawyer, policy advisor, and author of “Why Young Men.” You can find his writing at jamiljivani.substack.com.
The views in this article are the writer’s own.
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