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Canada may be on a path to digital totalitarianism

We are now in a contest to see who can sink lower in pursuit of millions—government or media

Canadian PoliticsMedia Canadian Business

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Another breadcrumb has landed which suggests that Canadians may be on a path to digital authoritarianism, or even totalitarianism, if some politicians in Ottawa get their way. First the standing committee of Canadian Heritage began a legislative spree to regulate the Internet. Now the committee’s MPs want digital giants Google and Facebook to hand over their private communications with Canadians. Even such a cornerstone of the status quo as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce has raised the alarm, warning that this “poses a serious threat to the privacy of Canadians and to their rights to hold and express opinions on public issues.”

At issue is a motion the Heritage Committee passed on Monday ordering Google and Meta to release their internal and external communications around Bill C-18, the Online News Act, which if enacted would require the digital giants to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars to Canada’s news media. University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist calls it “an utter embarrassment,” describes Bill C-18 as a “shakedown,” and decries the Heritage Committee’s “disturbing anti-democratic tactics.”

He has documented an “intense lobbying campaign from some of Canada’s largest media companies” for the digital millions, which has included more than 100 registered lobbyist meetings between government officials and newspaper industry association News Media Canada. “Years of one-sided editorials—even devoting full front pages to the issue,” have been one result of NMC’s campaign, according to Geist, with “skewed coverage of the issue in which the overwhelming majority of news stories backed government intervention.”

Worse has been the corporate censorship Geist has endured personally. After he had a guest column accepted in 2021 by the opinions editor of a newspaper he did not name, Geist said he “was then told the piece was spiked by upper management given the subject matter and the campaign for legislative support from Canadian Heritage.” The same thing happened twice to Carleton University professor Dwayne Winseck.

It seems we are now in a contest to see who can sink lower in pursuit of millions—government or media.

Heritage Committee members bully and intimidate witnesses, only to have Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez accuse them of attempting to intimidate Canadians. The committee’s latest demands brought a withering critique from The Line, which eviscerated them as “nothing short of banana crackers.”

“If these companies are being accused of anything illegal, by all means, investigate away—after you get a warrant.” The motion’s “overbroad dragnet,” it noted, would “necessarily create privacy breaches for the unknown numbers of ordinary citizens, dissidents and journalists.”

The irony, noted The Line, was that the Heritage Committee was demanding by month’s end to see documents from Google and Facebook which, if journalists sought them in an Access to Information request to Ottawa, “would take years to get such a request fulfilled, and half if it would come back redacted.” It concluded that the politicians had things backwards. “The government is subject to this kind of transparency and disclosure because the government works for us. Not the other way around.”

The tactics employed by some Heritage Committee members have even brought some of its own more right-thinking members near tears, such as when Conservative MP Rachel Thomas implored committee chair Hedy Fry to stop Liberal MP Chris Bittle from “badgering” witnesses from Meta last year. A snickering Bittle quipped triumphantly after Fry refused the request that “Mrs. Thomas watches too much Law and Order.”

The witnesses warned then and confirmed earlier this year that Meta does not intend to pay to allow Facebook members to post links to Canadian news stories if Bill C-18 passes, and will ban the practice instead.

The swaggering Bittle’s latest target is Google, which sent a Canadian representative to appear on the carpet two weeks ago. Bittle continually interrupts witnesses when they don’t spit out their answers fast enough, and he makes a habit of threatening retribution to those not forthcoming enough for his liking. “We may need to speak to the law clerk about further actions involving Google,” he said after humiliating Sabrina Geremia, “because this has been wholly unacceptable.”

Bittle, who is parliamentary secretary to Rodriguez, used similar tactics last year in pushing through Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act, which taxes and regulates foreign streaming services such as Netflix but also brings user-generated online content under the ambit of the CRTC. Bill C-18 is the second Internet regulation bill, but the real fight will come over pending legislation to regulate “online harms,” which could prohibit otherwise lawful speech.

Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne sublimely understated the trifecta. “If the government were only putting all of the country’s newspapers on its payroll, or imposing Canadian content quotas on YouTube, or snooping through people’s tweets, it would be worrying enough,” he wrote in a 2021 column. “But as it is proposing to do all three at the same time, I think a little alarm is in order.”

Ottawa’s initiative is part of a world-wide trend to digital authoritarianism. Governments around the world have found online media much easier to suppress than the press or broadcasters ever were because they control what Canadian Internet scholar Tim Wu calls “The Master Switch.”

When things get too hot, dictators simply pull the plug. As a result, democracy is on the run worldwide. In Canada, the choke-point is controlled by the country’s very few Internet service providers including Bell, Rogers, and Telus, which is why their ever-tightening grip on our media, which also includes owning all of the country’s private TV networks, should be so concerning.

Ottawa’s push to regulate the Internet began with the 2020 report of a Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review panel chaired by lawyer Janet Yale which called for expanding the CRTC’s regulatory authority from broadcasting to include online media. It also recommended that the CRTC regulate the relationship between social media that share news and media outlets to ensure that the latter were “treated fairly where there is an imbalance in negotiating power.”

Extending the CRTC’s mandate to online news content could “wreck what makes the internet free, popular and innovative,” protested Timothy Denton, chair of the Internet Society of Canada, who imagined that the government would never actually follow through on the idea. “Once newspapers, communications companies and ordinary citizens wake up to this massive overreach, it will become a dead letter, if it is not already. In the meantime, we can only marvel that they thought they could get away with it.”

Newspapers, unfortunately, have been behind the push to get Google and Facebook’s millions. The digital wizards, however, are playing three-dimensional chess to their Checkers. The platforms operate in cyberspace and have their headquarters in other countries. There is not much to stop them from quitting Canada completely. The real losers would be Canadians.

Hopefully cooler heads will soon prevail, as Google has now promised to send its big guns to Ottawa, or at least for them to appear virtually. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also been summonsed to appear, so April could be interesting in Ottawa.

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

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