We are at a critical junction for the future of the internet.
The internet has revolutionized our world. It has created new industries and destroyed old ones. It has led to an artistic renaissance and facilitated transnational academic research.
This progress was achieved thanks to the open nature of the internet. It provided innovators, researchers and artists an equal playing field to experiment with and collaborate on new technologies that transformed our lives and the economy.
But this very openness hasn’t come without its problems. It led to the rise of tech giants that have taken control over our data and much of our lives. It has facilitated the rise of extreme hate ideologies, and it has eroded the viability of centuries-old journalistic institutions.
Earlier this month, a government panel charged with reviewing the rules surrounding our broadcast and telecommunications systems — known as the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review panel — released a report that looked at the future of the internet. It explored ways to harness the innovation and creativity of the open internet, while discouraging harmful speech, the erosion of our privacy and the demise of journalism.
However, the panel didn’t quite succeed in balancing these competing ambitions.
It wasn’t all bad. The panel made some needed recommendations to strengthen net neutrality, improve privacy rights and make universal internet access a priority. But, with the best of intentions in mind, other recommendations put forward a breathtakingly misguided vision of an internet that is governed by the same controlling rules that governed cable TV. Focused on addressing the new problems of the internet, the panel recommended broad new powers for government to reshape what we can see and do online in ways that can lead to political abuse and undermining of media independence.
The intentions of the panel are noble and important. Canada needs to promote Canadian culture, address misinformation and hate online, and ensure the media survives as an institution to keep governments and corporations accountable.
But these goals cannot come at the expense of the open internet, a fully independent press and freedom of expression.
Some of the most worrying recommendations the panel has proposed include:
Giving the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission the power to classify “trusted” news sources, funding them through special levies on online platforms, and forcing online platforms to prioritize them. There is little detail on how trusted platforms would be defined or how online platforms would have to promote them, but ultimately having a government agency determine which news sources can be trusted erodes the power of the media as an institution that holds that same government accountable.
Applying broadcasting rules to the internet, meaning online platforms would be forced to invest in and promote an unspecified proportion of Canadian content. While that may be something Netflix can easily do by investing in Canadian film and adding a Canadian content section on the front page, it’s unclear how it will affect companies that rely on user-generated content like YouTube, Reddit or Tumblr, let alone smaller startups that may not have the resources to invest in Canadian-specific content.
Removing intermediary liability protections that online platforms need to post user-generated content. One of the basic principles of the internet is that users are liable for content they post online, not the platforms. By removing these protections, online platforms would have to take a very broad brush to censorship, removing not only clearly objectionable content but also any conceivably questionable material in order to protect themselves from fines, lawsuits and other legal action. Previous attempts to introduce intermediary liability in other countries have led to the censorship and marginalization of entire communities online, similar to what happened to women, queer people and sex workers after the passage of SESTA/FOSTA in the United States.
Again, the intentions of many of these recommendations are noble, but giving the CRTC the power to pick winners and losers online cannot be the answer.
While many of these recommendations seem innocuous when applied by a progressive and democratic government, we can’t guarantee these laws won’t be used against our democracy in the future. As participants of the democratic process, we need to ask ourselves whether we would support these same recommendations if they were implemented by autocratic governments, like Russia or Turkey, or by leaders seeking to erode democratic institutions, like Trump or Bolsonaro.
Ultimately, the future of Canada’s internet now lies in the hands of ministers Navdeep Bains and Steven Guilbeault, who will take these recommendations and write legislation based on what they think is the right path forward. The onus will then pass to each of us to decide if we agree.
Rodrigo Samayoa is a digital campaigner at OpenMedia.
Image: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay