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The Online Harms Act doesn’t go far enough to protect democracy in Canada

The Online Harms Act doesn’t go far enough to protect democracy in Canada

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The Online Harms Act doesn’t go far enough to protect democracy in Canada

The Liberal government’s recent proposal for regulating social media platforms, , comes as the final act in a  aimed at bringing some order to the digital world.

After contentious  and the , this final bill attempts to identify and regulate harmful content. The Online Harms Act follows , the  and  in setting up a new regulator in an attempt to address the spread of what is considered harmful content.

The idea that such efforts are necessary is not controversial — content that sexually exploits children, for instance, has already been , and hate speech has been illegal for decades in .CBC News looks at the Online Harms Act.

Platform responsibility

Online harms laws are based on the idea of “”: making the platforms legally responsible when users use them to distribute content that breaks laws.

Under the Online Harms Act, platforms will be required to promptly remove two forms of content — that which “sexually victimizes a child or revictimizes a survivor” and “intimate images posted without consent” — or face large fines.

But it also includes less strict measures to deal with other forms of harmful content, including promotion of terrorism or genocide, incitement to violence or hate speech. Platforms will be required to develop, and make public, plans to “mitigate the risk that users will be exposed to harmful content on the services and submitting digital safety plans to the Digital Safety Commission of Canada.”

Crime and punishment

There are also  for users who upload these forms of content. These provisions have been the subject of .

Many civil libertarians argue that they , while advocates for marginalized groups believe that they are .

But much of the debate over these specific details misses a deeper failing of the bill, which derives from the way the idea of “online harm” is understood.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is voicing concerns over what it calls ‘draconian penalties’ proposed in the Criminal Code as part of the Liberal government’s sweeping plan to target online hate. Justice Minister Arif Virani arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Feb. 27, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

‘Lawful but awful’

For much of the last decade, digital media scholars have also been directing attention to different ways in which platform communication . The definition of harmful content in Bill C-63 focuses on harms that are experienced by users when they encounter particular forms of content posted by others.

But platforms aren’t merely empty spaces for users to send messages to other users —  in shaping the communication that takes place, determining how messages are combined and sorted, and how their distribution is prioritized and limited.

For this reason, .

This is often understood as the reason why fake news or hyper-partisan political commentary is so problematic on platforms. Even perfectly legal communication — what is called “” content — can contribute to a pattern of serious harm.

One person , promoting  or , might not be “harmful” in the sense that Bill C-63 defines the concept.

But when social media algorithms ensure that many users don’t see counter-evidence from outside their “,” the dangers are real. This is also true of any number of other kinds of , such as  of political candidates.

Misinformation, such as deepfakes of politicians, can spread unregulated on online platforms. (Shutterstock)

Democracy at risk

Democracy relies on open and rational deliberation. The conditions for that kind of communication can be degraded by the way that algorithms operate. That algorithms are operated by private, for-profit corporations that seek to maximize “engagement” makes the problem even worse; this creates an  and further .

Exactly how algorithms should be regulated is not a simple question. Some of the provisions in Bill C-63 might be a step in the right direction: requirements for risk mitigation plans, an ombudsperson who can help the public submit complaints about platforms to a regulator and obligations to provide information about content. And importantly, all of this can be done without unnecessarily violating users’ freedom of expression.

But a more specific legal obligation on platforms to deprioritize content that is clearly false — such as public health messaging or information related to elections — would be necessary to stop increasing online polarization and promoting .

While the Online Harms Act might protect individuals from being exposed to specific kinds of content, protecting the democratic nature of our society will require a more robust set of regulations than what has been proposed.

By Derek Hrynyshyn, contract faculty, Communication & Media Studies, York University.

This article is republished from.