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The first 100 days: Major battle over free speech, internet regulation looms when Parliament returns

A new internet-regulation bill could spark even more outrage than C-10, according to none other than Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault

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When Parliament returns this fall, the Liberals have a packed agenda of new COVID policies, housing measures and criminal justice reforms to pass — but it’s their deeply contentious overhaul of internet regulations that could end up dominating the agenda.

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This session will see the Liberals try to pass a package of proposed regulatory bills touching on everything from Canadian content rules to hate speech to media subsidies. A wide range of experts, as well as the Conservative opposition, has repeatedly warned that some of the proposed policies are a major threat to free expression.

One of the measures, the legislation formerly known as Bill C-10, already kicked off a storm of controversy in the spring. The legislation would set up the CRTC to regulate online platforms (such as Netflix) the way it does TV and radio broadcasters.

At the committee stage, MPs removed a section that had exempted user-generated content, such as social media posts, leading critics to charge this was a sweeping violation of free speech. Former CRTC commissioner Peter Menzies said the bill “doesn’t just infringe on free expression, it constitutes a full-blown assault upon it and, through it, the foundations of democracy.”

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After the Conservatives took up the cause and opposed the legislation, the Liberals — backed by the NDP and Bloc Québécois — put forth an all-out effort to get the bill through the House of Commons. The rush to pass the bill culminated in the heritage committee voting on dozens of amendments that hadn’t even been made public yet; the House of Commons Speaker eventually ruled the committee overstepped its authority, and voided the amendments.

Despite all that, the bill died on the order paper this summer after senators balked at fast-tracking it, due to both its content and the extraordinary process it underwent in the House of Commons. This means that even if MPs pass the bill quickly this fall, it still has to go through a full Senate study, where a whole new battle over amendments is likely to break out.

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  1. Critics warn the requirement for social media platforms to take down posts within 24 hours will lead to over-enforcement by the platforms in an effort to avoid fines.

    Ditch 'fundamentally flawed' online harms bill, experts say in submissions to Heritage Canada

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    NP View: Justin Trudeau Liberals pose a direct threat to free speech in Canada

But a new internet-regulation bill could spark even more outrage than C-10, according to none other than Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault. “People think that C-10 was controversial. Wait till we table this legislation,” he told an industry conference in June.

The Liberals have promised to table that online harms bill in the first 100 days of Parliament’s return. The government laid out a proposed approach over the summer, outlining plans to require online platforms such as social media sites to remove illegal content within 24 hours, and establish a regulator called the Digital Safety Commissioner of Canada to enforce the new rules.

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Critics have already sounded the alarm about a number of measures in the bill they say could violate Canadians’ constitutional rights — including giving that new regulator the authority to send inspectors into workplaces and homes, and allowing non-public hearings.

In a recent Heritage Canada consultation, experts told the government the proposed requirements for social media platforms to proactively monitor and take down social media posts amount to censorship, and urged the Liberals to set the “fundamentally flawed” bill aside. Anything less “will jeopardize Canada’s claim to being a leader in advancing free expression, a free and open internet, and the human rights upon which our democratic society has been built,” the University of Ottawa’s internet policy and public interest clinic told the government.

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Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, speaking about a new internet-regulation bill: “People think that C-10 was controversial. Wait till we table this legislation.”
Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, speaking about a new internet-regulation bill: “People think that C-10 was controversial. Wait till we table this legislation.” Photo by Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/File

The Liberals will also be reintroducing their online hate speech bill, which was tabled at the end of the last parliamentary session. The bill would essentially bring back Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which was repealed 10 year ago over free speech concerns, though this version would have a narrowed definition of hate speech.

Another piece of the Liberals’ online regulation plans is to force platforms such as Google and Facebook to compensate news outlets for their content. The Liberal election platform said Canada would be following the Australian model, which imposes bargaining rules for publishers and online platforms. Such a move could draw fierce opposition from the tech giants — in response to the Australia law, Facebook initially blocked news on its platform in that country.

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Other business

Among other government priorities for the return of the House of Commons are five new COVID measures. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already announced details of how two of those will work – requiring federal public servants to be vaccinated, and requiring proof of vaccination to board a plane or train. Both measures will be in place before the end of the month.

The other three initiatives are establishing an international proof of vaccination that Canadians can use to travel overseas, making funding available to the provinces for establishing vaccine passports, and making it a crime to harass and intimidate health-care workers.

A government source said the Liberals will also look to move quickly on housing. Housing affordability was a major issue during the campaign, and the Liberals promised a series of measures to tackle it, including banning blind bidding, an anti-house-flipping tax, and forbidding non-Canadian residents from buying housing for two years. The government could move forward with legislation that combines several promises, and implement others through regulation, the source said.

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The Liberals are also planning to bring back other bills that died on the order paper when the election was called.

This includes the bill to ban coerced conversion therapy, which failed to pass Parliament this spring in part because the Conservatives held it up, and in part because the Liberals didn’t prioritize it earlier in the session. The Liberals promised to reintroduce it in the first 100 days, but unless the bill is changed, the Conservatives will likely still raise objections that it could unintentionally criminalize conversations with religious leaders.

The Liberals have also promised to reintroduce their bill on French language rights in the first 100 days. Among other things, the bill legislates the right to work in French in companies under federal jurisdiction, and mandates that new Supreme Court of Canada justices be fluent in French without the assistance of an interpreter.

Expect to see a bill on criminal justice reform in the early days as well; the Liberals have promised to resurrect legislation to reduce prosecutions for low-level drug offences and scrap mandatory minimum sentences for some drug and firearms offences.

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