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News March 15, 2023

CFE joins call for care in how feds address online harms

In a letter today to federal Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriquez, the Centre for Free Expression (CFE) joined twelve other internet policy, civil liberties, and human rights organizations in calling for caution and care in preparing legislation to address illegal and harmful online content in Canada.

“Illegal online content and legal but harmful online content are both real issues, but any legislation that threatens the rights of all people in Canada to express themselves freely is amongst the most sensitive our government can propose,” the letter said. “The process of developing such legislation must be transparent,democratic, cautious, and publicly accountable throughout.”

Specifically, the thirteen organizations identified seven measures that any regulatory framework must avoid. The first is there must be no requirement for social media platforms to share information with law enforcement and national security agencies. Also, there must be no provisions compelling platforms to collect, intercept, orshare private communications without judicial authorization.

The other proscriptions were there be no requirement that compromises secure encrypted messagingservices; no short and inflexible timeframes for illegal content takedown except in the cases of risk of imminent harm to persons, depiction of illegal child exploitation, or non-consensual distribution of intimate images; no provision for website blocking without judicial authorization and right to appeal; no mandate for proactive monitoring of content; and no new definitions of harmful content beyond those already established in law and the Criminal Code.

“Any policy response must put individuals first, reduce illegal online harms, be consistent with the Charter ofRights and Freedoms, and guard against the possibility that it will have chilling effects on online participation”, the signatories said.

To that end, the letter called for legislation that requires transparency in how platforms’ content moderationsystems function; appeals processes for users whose content is taken down; algorithmic transparency; and tools that allow users to block bad actors or lock down their own accounts.

“Social media have made possible unprecedented opportunities for a stronger and more equitable democracy while also providing the tools for undermining that same democracy,” said James L. Turk, Director of the Centre for Free Expression.  “Ultimately, the only means to reduce the harm and while protecting the good are measures that mandate platform transparency, empower users, and base content moderation requirements on international human rights laws.”

In addition to the Centre for Free Expression, the letter was signed the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, Canadian Association of University Teachers, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, Canadians United Against Hate, Ligue des droits et libertés, Independent Jewish Voices Canada, International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, Internet Society Canada Chapter, National Council of Canadian Muslims, and OpenMedia.