Rosemary Ganley The Peterborough Examiner November 12, 2020
Recently, my column discussed the harmful effects of huge web corporations. The data came from revelations from inside the industry, former employees in Silicon Valley, disgusted at the harm being done. They charged their bosses with inadequate policing and infrequent withdrawal of hateful content.
Now, I praise a made-in-Canada analysis from Friends of Canadian Broadcasting executive director Daniel Bernhard. It is an impressive report of 48 pages. Not a lawyer but an informed social critic, Bernhard spent the summer thinking about Michael Enright’s rousing sign-off after 50 years of dedication to public broadcasting. Enright hosted “The Sunday Edition” for 30 years on CBC radio.
He said: “The first thing a tyrant does is shut down the public broadcaster.”
I believe that part of the reason we in Canada have not gone down the dark path of the U.S, in its threatening divisions seen so clearly, is that we have had the enormous benefit, since the 1940s, of an arms-length, adequately funded public broadcaster, informing us, assimilating our differences, telling our stories and showing us each other, in a fair and positive light.
The strongest democracies around the world do likewise. But the U.S. is riven by private, for-profit broadcasters. Imagine being subject to the biased, inflammatory Fox News as your daily source of information. Or to the hateful posts on Twitter, which have so contributed to Mr. Trump’s ascendancy, at the same time as they plunge American values lower.
Presenting extremist positions and driven by ratings and profits, such networks undermine communal feelings, increase grievance and betray truth.
Is Facebook, for example, to be permitted to pollute our democracy and pit us against each other? Will Netflix be allowed to take billions in ad money out of our country with no obligation to invest in our stories?
Bernard researched and wrote a 48-page paper intended, he says, to educate MPs and other decision-makers. And us citizens, too.
Called “Platforms for Harm,” it was launched on a webinar a month ago which featured former Environment Minister Catherine McKenna of Ottawa speaking of the terrible abuse she endured online. It led to the trashing of her office.
As Bernard says, “The early internet held out promises of Eden, but it delivered anarchy instead.” It is the greatest tool for informational exchange since the printing press. But double-edged it is. It increases global connectivity while being overshadowed by hate speech, bullying, disinformation, and other illegal content.
The companies, he argues, not only disseminate harmful content to millions, but, having learned of our tastes through data collection, proactively recommend harmful content to users.
Bernard holds that present Canadian law “while certainly imperfect, is decently equipped to beat back the online harms.”
Can we use our current laws? In our courts? Can we lift the burden of complaint from the individual citizen who, when harmed, has only the option of taking a giant corporation to court in a “titanic imbalance of power,” that is, certainly a “barrier to justice.”
The Canadian government through an agency such as the privacy commissioner must do the suing, and hold those who threaten the public good responsible for the harms they inflict. Do it urgently, argues Bernhard. Courts must learn and fast. And impose big fines.
There are two rights at stake here: One, the right to free speech and two, the right to be protected against defamation and hate.
A line between acceptable and unlawful speech does exist in our common law tradition and must be invoked, in a court before a judge. We must build up a number of decided cases with appropriate penalties assessed.
Then we can show the world we are leading in confronting this great modern challenge to civic and personal well-being. Bernhard’s paper should get us thinking and talking. As well as supporting his group, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
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