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This article originally appeared in the National Post.

By Christopher Dummitt, March 4, 2024

Remember the people who decided it was a good idea to ban tobogganing? Now they are coming for your internet.

That, sadly, is a realistic assessment of the Trudeau government’s new so-called online harms act. I say “so-called” because anyone who thinks the definition of harm is transparent and uncontroversial in 2024 hasn’t been online since the social media site was called “The Facebook.”

The Trudeau government’s bill could be read as well-intentioned. It targets a number of issues that a majority of Canadians would probably agree need to be tackled: child pornography, revenge porn and incitement to violence and terrorism. There is space here for sober legislation and enforcement mechanisms to update our laws for the age of social media and Pornhub.

But despite what the majority of the government’s rhetoric wants you to believe, that’s not all the bill does. Snuck in alongside these laudable aims are illiberal measures meant to fight highly contestable partisan culture wars.

The Liberals (and the New Democrats, who will support the bill) want to censor or make it illegal to state a whole host of opinions with which they disagree. And this legislation will let them do it — all the while pretending it’s simply about combating “hate” and “harm.”

The bill would force online providers to implement “measures that are adequate to mitigate the risk that users will be exposed to harmful content.” And what is harmful content? Well, there’s the rub. It’s going to be up to the online providers, under the steely gaze of a new digital safety commissioner, to decide what to ban.

If they get it wrong, the providers face significant penalties as high as eight per cent of the company’s global revenue. Does this seem like the kind of context in which a company will adopt a liberal view of free speech?

What’s more, the bill reintroduces Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Despite the government’s claims that this is in line with current hate speech laws, this is absolutely not the case.

Canada’s current hate speech laws have been interpreted very narrowly (so far) by the courts, with an emphasis on speech that is intentionally hateful, tied to likely violence or likely to lead to a breach of the peace.

The new hate speech provisions in the Canadian Human Rights Act won’t be subject to the same restraint, because unlike in the Criminal Code, truth will not be offered as a defence and because human rights law has a much lower standard of proof. It also empowers social media companies to make decisions about what content will be censored, unencumbered by the legal framework used in courts of law.

This might not matter if we agreed on what counted as hate. But we don’t.

Since the 1980s, a whole host of terms associated with harm and violence have wildly grown in scope. This is what psychologists call “concept creep.”

Concepts such as “trauma,” “abuse,” “violence” and “genocide” are now routinely used by some (but not all) to describe actions that would never have been considered harmful before. What’s more, the whole process is highly politicized, with many on the left working hard to expand notions of what counts as harmful.

Just think of some of the things that progressives have defined as hate speech or harmful over the last few years: saying biological sex is real could be considered hateful; the same is true for suggesting that hiring should be based on merit and not race. Do you think Canada is less racist than the United States? Well, you might be a white supremacist.

Do we really want to put people who think like this in charge of regulating “harm” and “hate” on the internet?

Over the last few years, we’ve witnessed the ways in which questionable ideas get written into the system so that they seem normal. This is exactly what this bill hopes to do — systematically institutionalize debatable ideas of harm.

Most of us are familiar with the overly protective school principal who thinks that picking up snow in the schoolyard is a hazard, and who requires permission forms before it’s safe for our kids to walk down the sidewalk. Now imagine giving that school principal control over the internet. That’s what the Liberals are promising. And we’re meant to think it will all be OK.

What has ever gone wrong when well-intentioned busybodies arms themselves to keep us “safe” from “harm”?

Christopher Dummitt is a historian of Canadian culture and politics at Trent University and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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