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Liberals drop plan to force takedowns of ‘harmful content’ after censorship accusations & More Trending News

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The new proposal obliges platforms to ‘take reasonable steps to identify and mitigate foreseeable harm arising from the operation and design of their services’

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The federal Liberal government plans to shift gears on its controversial proposal to regulate “online harms” to an approach that puts the onus on digital platforms to deal with potentially harmful content. The move comes after critics warned the original plan would amount to censorship, and new documents released from a government-appointed advisory group show it supported a change in approach.

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However, most “if not all” members of the advisory group appointed by Heritage Canada have suggested that the categories of harms targeted should be broadened to include, among other things, “misleading political communications,” “propaganda,” and online content that promotes an “unrealistic body image.” The government has not yet indicated whether it will accept all of the group’s recommendations.

A series of worksheets recently posted online by Heritage Canada signal that the government is moving away from it original plan for a “regime based on rigid moderating obligations,” in which Ottawa would have ordered platforms to remove content it deemed harmful within 24 hours or face penalties.

Instead, an “updated approach” would focus on a “general framework that compels platforms to assess the risk posed by harmful content on their services and provide details about how they will mitigate the risk identified and respond to instances of online harm on their platforms.”

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The government’s first attempt at regulating content was widely criticized in a consultation held last year. Internet experts, academics, Google, civil liberties groups and research librarians cautioned the proposed plan would result in the blocking of legitimate content and censorship, and would violate Canadians’ constitutional and privacy rights.

Five categories of content would have been covered under the government’s original regulatory plan: terrorist content, content that incites violence, hate speech, intimate images shared non-consensually, and child sexual exploitation. Platforms would also have been required to proactively monitor posts, in addition to having to follow government takedown orders.

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In February, the government said it would revise the proposal following the critical feedback, and in March, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez appointed an “expert advisory group” to give advice on how to redesign the legislation.

The group of 12 wrapped up its meetings on June 10. Canadian Heritage said a press release this week a final summary of the group’s findings and conclusions would be published in the coming weeks.

The government has published summaries of the group’s weekly meetings, as well as worksheets that outline the government’s “preliminary ideas” for how to update the proposed legislation.

The new approach would currently regulate the same five categories of content and cover “services that Canadians intuitively associate with the term social media platform” — specifically naming Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok — as well as those that “pose significant risk in terms of proliferating harmful content,” such as the porn site PornHub.

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Messages sent using platforms’ private messaging functions, like Facebook Messenger, would not be captured.

A new regulator called the Digital Safety Commissioner would enforce the framework, with the ability to make orders and levy fines, and would be equipped with “audit and inspection authorities.”

The new proposal is meant to take a “duty of care” approach, obliging platforms to “take reasonable steps to identify and mitigate foreseeable harm arising from the operation and design of their services.”

That means the platforms would have to file digital safety plans with the regulator, which would require them to “conduct a risk assessment of the harmful content on their platforms, and detail their mitigation measures, systems and processes to address such risks,” the government outlined.

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“The regime would set baseline standards for how harmful content is defined and, in turn, monitored and moderated by regulated services,” according to a government-released worksheet. The idea is that as long as the platforms have adequate systems in place, they wouldn’t be penalized for “arriving at a reasonable conclusion about whether the content meets the legislated definitions of harmful content.”

In an April meeting of the 12 advisors, most expressed support for “moving beyond a ‘take-down’ approach to content regulation,” and “shifting instead towards incentivizing platforms to manage risk when developing their products,” a summary published by Canadian Heritage said.

The new approach is similar to that put forward by the U.K. government in its Online Safety Bill. One of the benefits of a systems-based approach, the Heritage worksheet said, is that it “seeks to minimize limitations on freedom of expression, within reasonable bounds and mitigated by procedural fairness and safeguards.”

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A summary of an April 21 meeting said multiple “experts emphasized that whatever framework is chosen, it would be critically important that it not incentivize a general system of monitoring.”

Some also expressed concern about “outsourcing the duty to consider fundamental rights to private companies,” especially in Canada, “as, in their view, Canada does not have a clear articulation of what freedom of expression means.”

They said it would be “especially important to be as clear as possible in legislation about what regulated services are expected to do in considering their users’ fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Many also “stressed that there would be Charter concerns with a framework that seeks to impose obligations on services to remove content that is not illegal.”

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But at the same time, most, “if not all” told the government the scope of the legislation should be broadened.

In addition to the five categories of content proposed by the government, they stated that the framework should also incorporate a range of both illegal and legal but possibly harmful content, including fraud, cyberbullying, defamation, “propaganda,” “misleading political communications,” and “mass sharing of traumatic incidents.”

They also suggested targeting content and algorithms that contribute to “unrealistic body image,” and “isolation or diminished memory concentration and ability to focus.” The government also consulted the experts about how it could address disinformation.

Those various types of content wouldn’t necessarily be treated the same way. “Many experts recommended that the framework differentiate between illegal and legal yet harmful content, imposing distinct obligations on regulated services for each type of content,” the summary said.

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