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Justice minister defends finding that Bill C-10 doesn’t pose free speech concern

Global News logo Global News 2021-05-18 Rachel Gilmore
David Lametti wearing glasses and looking at the camera: Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti speaks with the media following a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 25, 2020. © THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti speaks with the media following a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 25, 2020.

Justice Minister David Lametti is defending his finding that Bill C-10 doesn't threaten Canadians' charter rights, despite concerns from experts about the impact the legislation could have on free speech online.

Lametti's comments came after the justice department took a second look at the charter statement for the bill, which was signed off on by Lametti himself, and found the proposed legislation doesn't unduly tread on Canadians' charter-affirmed rights.

"It is our position that the bill as tabled and these proposed amendments are consistent with the charter," said Lametti, speaking to the Canadian heritage committee on Tuesday.

Read more: Could Bill C-10 regulate your social media algorithm? Minister responsible won’t say

Opposition MPs had requested the new charter statement after multiple experts warned a version of the bill could allow the government to regulate everything Canadians post on social media.

O’Toole says new amendments to Bill C-10 ‘do not protect the freedom of expression’
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Broadly, the bill aims to modernize the Broadcasting Act — which saw its last major reform in 1991 before the internet was widely available — to reflect the fact that Canadians consume things like music, movies and news differently nowadays, often using streaming services or social media.

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The proposed law hopes to extend Canadian content requirements to these online platforms, ensuring the companies pay into cultural funds and display a certain amount of Canadian content.

Bill C-10 became a source of parliamentary discord after the Liberals removed a section of the bill that protected user-generated content and exempted it from regulation. That meant Canadians' Facebook and Instagram posts could be forced to abide by certain CRTC rules.

Read more: Plans to regulate user-generated internet content are both worrying and pointless

And while it’ll be up to the CRTC to draft exactly what those regulations might look like, experts have warned this could allow the CRTC to regulate anything they’d like on social media.

“Social media companies (would be) legally responsible for all these videos that users post as though they’re somehow broadcasting programs,” Emily Laidlaw, Canada Research Chair in cybersecurity law at the University of Calgary, said in an interview with Global News in early May.

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A former CRTC vice-chair echoed her concerns shortly after Section 4.1 was dropped from the bill.

“It’s your Facebook post. It’s your tweet. It’s your cat videos. It’s your pictures of your children and grandchildren and that sort of stuff,” said Peter Menzies, who is also a past newspaper publisher.

“What it means is that somebody will be watching that, from the government, or a government regulator, and will be able to order it to be taken down if they find that it doesn’t suit whatever purposes they have.”

Read more: Bill C-10 doesn’t pose free speech concern despite social media impact, justice minister finds

These expert warnings prompted opposition MPs to call for a fresh look at the bill to ensure it's still charter compliant -- despite the removal of the key section that exempts individual Canadians from the CRTC's rules.

On Friday, the government released the explanatory note on the charter statement. It said Bill C-10 does not pose a threat to freedom of speech -- despite its impact on social media.

Lametti defended the finding on Tuesday.

"Unaffiliated users of social media services would not be subject to broadcasting regulation in respect of the programs they post. What remains is an updating of the CRTC's regulatory powers, and providing it with new powers applicable to online services," he said.

Lametti acknowledged that the charter statement found the charter right to free speech "might be engaged" by the bill. But, he said, the bill was found to be "in conformity" with the charter.

When pressed by fellow Liberal MPs, Lametti also assured the committee that the decision was not a political one.

"The charter statement is a framework document that is is meant to show that the government is attuned to the fact that there is a charter, and that proposed legislation needs to conform to that charter," he said.

"It's an important responsibility ... for me to oversee the preparation of charter statements. These are done by non-partisan department lawyers whose task it is to prepare charter statements and to do the analysis ... and while it is a document that is finally reviewed by me, I do that in my role as minister of justice, and I do that very seriously in a non-partisan way."

Read more: Feds asking Canadians to take ‘leap of faith’ that Bill C-10 won’t hurt free speech: experts

Some experts who spoke to the same committee on Monday were less convinced by the charter analysis.

"From a charter perspective, the statement issued by Justice last week simply does not contain analysis or discussion about how the regulation of user-generated content as a program intersects with the charter," said Michael Geist, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa.

"There is similarly no discussion about whether this might constitute a violation that could be justified."

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Geist told the committee that he was "shaken" by the disregard for Canadians' charter-affirmed rights.

"I would have thought that standing behind freedom of expression would be an easy choice to make, and I've been genuinely shaken to find that my government thinks otherwise," he said.

The government, meanwhile, continues to defend the bill.

Speaking before committee on Tuesday, Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault insisted the bill has lots of industry support.

"Bill C-10 actually has a lot of support across this country for the benefit it will bring to our artists, but as well to the broadcasting ecosystem," he said.

One of those supporters is Andrew Cash, president and CEO of the Canadian Independent Music Association, who spoke before the committee on Monday.

"(Bill C-10) has the potential to move the creative sector from precarity towards middle-class stability, unlocking innovation and creating a global presence for the sector," he said.

"I implore you today to continue your work in amending Bill C10 as expediently as possible in order to pass it through Parliament before the end of the spring session."

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