© Reuters/Carlos Osorio
Canadian PM Justin Trudeau
Buried on page 65 of the Liberal platform is a promise to introduce legislation to "combat serious forms of harmful online content." It may seem innocuous enough given its lack of prominence in the document and the fact that most Canadians likely agree that things like terrorist content and child pornography are bad. But in reality, controlling how Canadians interact with each other online is one of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's top priorities. And it poses a direct threat to free speech in this country.

On Nov. 3, 2020, in the midst of the pandemic's second wave, instead of focusing on protecting Canadians, the government was introducing Bill C-10, an act to amend the Broadcasting Act. Again, it sounded pretty innocuous. The bill was ostensibly designed to bring streaming services, such as Netflix, under the purview of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

It was a terrible idea on its own, but initially didn't seem like it would affect most people's lives, because it specifically exempted user-generated content uploaded to social media sites from being subject to regulation. In fact, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault was adamant that, "We're not particularly interested in ... when my great-uncle posts pictures of his cats."

But the bill soon got altered in committee.

The exemption for user-generated content was removed and other additions were made that could potentially have given the CRTC control over podcasts, online videos, news websites and more. Though the government eventually added a clause excluding users from CRTC oversight, the content they posted would have still been fair game.

The Grits rammed C-10 through the House of Commons despite dire warnings from privacy and free speech advocates that it would give the broadcast regulator too much power to limit the rights of average citizens. And the Liberals did not stop there.

On June 23, right before the House adjourned for the summer, the Trudeau government introduced Bill C-36. The legislation, which was aimed at cracking down on online hate, would have essentially reinstated Sec. 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, a major impediment to free speech that allowed the quasi-judicial Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to make decisions on the limits of free expression based on a vague and overly broad definition of hate speech.

Sec. 13 was often criticized for putting important matters of free speech in the hands of a kangaroo court and for being used by certain groups to silence views they disagreed with. The Liberals tried to mitigate some of these problems by creating a new definition of hate speech. But determining what does and does not rise to the level of hate speech would still be completely subjective, and the law could still be abused in similar ways to the old one.

As if giving control over large swaths of the internet to the mandarins at the CRTC and reinstating a law that put a chill on free speech in this country for years were not enough, at the end of July, the Liberals opened consultations on a proposed online harms bill that would create a giant new government bureaucracy to monitor and police online expression.

It would charge a new "digital safety commissioner of Canada," with monitoring "online communication service providers" — including sites such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Pornhub — for illegal content.

The sites would be required to remove the offending material within 24 hours, which would act as an incentive for platforms to abide by any requests that come along, rather than consider their merits. And the commissioner would have the power to send inspectors into workplaces (and even private residences if they obtain a warrant), to search for documents, software and other information, which could violate Canadians' right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

The Liberals also propose to create new bodies to adjudicate disputes, with the power to hold hearings behind closed doors. As law Prof. Michael Geist described it, the plans
"pick up where Bill C-10 left off, treating freedom of expression as a danger to be constrained through regulations and the creation of a bureaucratic super-structure that includes a new digital safety commission, digital tribunal to rule on content removal and social media regulation advisory board."
Taken together, the three bills pose a clear and present threat to freedom of expression. And it's not hard to see where this is all going. Eventually, the government will realize that a lot of unsavoury speech takes place on foreign websites that cannot be controlled by Canadian authorities. It would not be much of a stretch to implement a large-scale censorship apparatus to prevent Canadians from accessing those sites, as the United Kingdom has done.

Today is an opportune day to reflect on these policy goals, as it's the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In the two decades since those attacks, we have seen a monumental increase in global surveillance, with governments — both democratic and autocratic — hoovering large amounts of data from the internet. Combining a historically unprecedented surveillance state with a ministry responsible for determining the limits of acceptable discourse shows just how little respect Canada's government has for civil liberties.

Luckily, none of the Liberal bills have become law — two died on the order paper (one in the Senate, the other in the Commons) when the election was called and the third was yet to be finalized — but if Trudeau is re-elected, you can bet that they will. The choice is in the hands of Canadian voters.