Twitter, Big Tech have concerns for Canadians' online free speech rights

"As lived during the recent Canadian federal election, a general approach to flagging will result in censorship," Twitter said.


A number of Big Tech companies have reportedly joined hundreds of concerned Canadian citizens in opposing the proposed "online harms" bill—a piece of legislation critics claim would hamper free speech and freedom of expression.

The bill would dice up online content into five prohibited categories: terrorist content, content to incite violence, hate speech, non-consensual explicit images, and child sexual exploitation content. If flagged as having content that falls into one of these categories, platforms would have up to 24 hours to remove the post.

To enforce these requirements, the bill would also create a new government regulatory role—the Digital Safety Commissioner of Canada.

Big Tech companies like Twitter, Microsoft, Pinterest, and Canadian telecom companies have reportedly submitted feedback on the legislation among the hundreds of submissions Canadian Heritage refused to release.

The government has reportedly refused to release the 422 submissions it received with only those submissions that stakeholders chose to release themselves were available to public and media. The National Post has obtained the full text of the submissions through an access to information request.

Such criticism includes a document from Twitter that warned the proposal involving proactive monitoring of content "sacrifices freedom of expression to the creation of a government run system of surveillance of anyone who uses Twitter."

Twitter said the government's proposal to police online activity lacks even "the most basic procedural fairness requirements you might expect from a government-run system such as notice and warning" and that the "requirement to 'share' information at the request of the Crown is also deeply troubling." The platform warned that the ability to flag content will 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 tried to flag content as harmful "in an effort to have it removed from public discourse or score political points."

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."

Microsoft said it was concerned the proposal "could have disproportionate impacts on freedom of expression and other fundamental human rights."

The company issued a warning about the precedent the legislation could set and cautioned that the bill's 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."

In a strongly-worded statement released last September, then-Twitter's Canadian head of public policy Michele Austin compared the plan to something that might be the workings of an authoritarian government and took issue with the proposed creation of a Digital Safety Commissioner, who would have the power to block access to specific websites.

"People around the world have been blocked from accessing Twitter and other services in a similar manner as the one proposed by Canada by multiple authoritarian governments (China, North Korea, and Iran for example) under the false guise of 'online safety,' impeding peoples' rights to access to information online," Austin wrote in the seven-page letter, The Globe and Mail reported.

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

Earlier this month, the Canadian government made a post reaffirming its "commitment to address online safety" by putting in place "a transparent and accountable regulatory framework for online safety in Canada."

"Now, more than ever, online services must be held responsible for addressing harmful content on their platforms and creating a safe online space that protects all Canadians," the website page reads.


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