The online harms call is coming from inside the House

    Nov 10, 2021

    OTTAWA—Do the Liberals actually care about people who aren’t white and wealthy, or are they just performatively jumping through the hoops of social justice that ultimately put marginalized groups in further peril? Asked and answered, as evidenced by their proposed online harms bill.

    The government is finally recognizing that the internet is a dumpster fire of putrid, hateful, and toxic abuse mostly perpetrated against marginalized groups including BIPOC, LGBTQ2S+, sex workers, people with disabilities, religious minorities, women and any intersection of these identities writ large. And it’s gotten worse since Donald Trump was elected. I know, as a Black woman who speaks out against oppression, I’ve experienced online abuse for years.

    In the discussion paper provided by Canadian Heritage, the government intended to enact a regulatory framework to remove content that promotes hate, harassment, and violent rhetoric online within 24 hours. If not, large fines would be levied against the social media giants. Unfortunately, this takedown window didn’t work in Germany and it didn’t work in France, which proposed a one-hour window. Brookings Institution wrote a post on lessons gleaned from online content moderation outside of the United States: “While stopping short of asking for constant monitoring, this would arguably lead to more restrictive moderation practices.” And herein lies the first problem. These regulations will require the social media platforms to engage in constant monitoring, whose data they will turn over to law enforcement who will then act in some undetermined way to enforce the Criminal Code, which will be expanded “to provide a definition of ‘hatred’ for the Section 319 hate propaganda offences and create a new peace bond designed to prevent the commission of hate propaganda offences/hate-motivated crimes.”

    In other words, this proposal will push platforms to feed more content and data to law enforcement, including basic subscriber information, which will be used to justify more funding for the expansion of powers for law enforcement. Nothing could go wrong here.

    But don’t worry, the government has a solution for the enforcement of the 24-hour takedown deadline that does nothing to help marginalized communities. They’re going to create a new “Digital Safety Commission of Canada to support three bodies that would operationalize, oversee, and enforce the new regime: the Digital Safety Commissioner of Canada, the Digital Recourse Council of Canada, and an Advisory Board.” More bureaucrats who know little to nothing about social media or the threats imposed, i.e. more white men and women who know nothing about the vulnerabilities of marginalized communities online. This is a Canadian-style paternalistic approach to harm reduction that doesn’t increase online safety for marginalized communities. Instead, it does the opposite.

    Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto sent a letter to the Department of Canadian Heritage on Sept. 25 that outlined the problems with the online harms proposal, specifically as it relates to vulnerable communities. The letter stated that: “The framework thereby rewards over-enforcement, with no countervailing forces to incentivize retention of content perceived as risqué or deviant by normative standards, but which remain legal, democratic, and often equality-advancing. This approach favours aggressive removal, the identification of false positives, and a risk-averse approach to sensitive or controversial content, as demonstrated by the empirical literature.” Basically, this proposed bill will do more to harm the people it purports to protect.

    Not shocking considering who’s been chosen over the years to run Canadian Heritage: one minister who didn’t seem to understand the internet with the introduction of that disastrous Bill C-10 (amending the Broadcasting Act), and the other denied the inclusion of systemic racism in Heritage’s anti-racism consultations back in 2018 when he was first minister of heritage. These two represent the Liberal Party excellence that has been put in charge of leading change to fight discrimination. As reported by the Globe and Mail, then (and since returned) Minister of Heritage Pablo Rodriguez claimed that “he wants to focus on concrete solutions to specific problems, deliberately avoiding a debate over the issue of ‘systemic’ racism.” He then went on to say that the expression, systemic racism, “is not part of my vocabulary.”

    At the heart of this issue is that of content moderation, which has been fraught with problems. In 2019, Casey Newton of The Verge wrote an investigative piece on human content moderators, their working conditions, and their mental health. Many suffer from PTSD and trauma-like symptoms from viewing violent and degrading images and videos; the use of contract and overseas labour means that these platforms don’t have to pay for benefits for these employees. These reports are not new, since Wired magazine wrote about the perils of human content moderation in 2014.

    The discussion paper by Canadian Heritage encourages automation of harmful content removal through algorithms. Seems like no one in the minister’s office read, Algorithms of Oppression or Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for The New Jim Code by digital equity expert Ruha Benjamin. Algorithms aren’t neutral and have been found to be biased against equity-deserving groups. Vox Media’s Recode wrote an extensive article wherein they determined that “these systems can be biased based on who builds them, how they’re developed, and how they’re ultimately used. This is commonly known as algorithmic bias.”

    Let me get this straight: the Liberals are reintroducing a bill intended to protect those from marginalized communities from online abuse and violence by using institutions and technological practices known to threaten the very safety of those they are trying to protect. And this initiative is being led by a minister who doesn’t believe in systemic racism. Wonder what other incoherent goodies of oppression the Liberals have for us this parliamentary session.

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.