Timothy M. Denton

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Bill C10 and elite panic

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The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium by [Martin Gurri]

C10, the government’s new Broadcasting Act, is a panicked reaction of elites to the power of the Internet. All the stated rationales are inadequate to explain the totalitarian impulse to control speech that oozes from the new bill. The very excess of the proposed Act is a sure sign of darker intentions.

 

My thesis is that the elites are in a panic. They are being talked back to in ways they cannot ignore. They go on Twitter or Facebook and encounter opposition from many quarters: skeptics of anthropogenic global warming, or COVID’s deadliness, or measures taken to combat the disease. It matters not that opposition to elite consensus on many subjects is wrong. What bugs them is that they are made aware of their lack of authority to settle what they think is unarguably true. After all, the science is settled, right? Most important, they are in a panic because Trump came to power on the strength of a social media campaign. This must never be allowed to happen again.

We are in an age when every dark interpretation of today turns out to be accurate in the six months' time. This is one of them. What I say may seem excessive, until you contemplate the scale of C10's power grab.

Let us look at the facts of C10, and then we will return to the elite panic issue.

The Canadian government has proposed to extend the Broadcasting Act to cover user-generated websites, uploads to social media, and video or sound communications across the Internet. It means that the most ordinary acts of Internet communication will need the government’s permission. If you write a letter you will be excused. But if you post something to Twitter or Facebook, or if you post a video to a website, or communicate a podcast, you will be subject to a regime of prior government permission.

It matters not that the censorship may be outsourced to the platforms themselves. Censorship by the large platforms under governmental direction entrenches and legitimates the private power that supporters of C10 say they oppose.

Even before the recent changes of Friday April 23, the government’s proposals were absurdly overstretched and unconstitutional. The entities the CRTC currently regulates number about 4-5,000 broadcasters across Canada, and it has trouble enough managing that case load. With the recent C10, the number of regulated entities would have gone into the millions. With the expansion of the Act, as proposed last Friday, the number of regulated entities would have reached the number of citizens and people in Canada who use social media or have a website.

Thus the proposed C10 becomes an Enabling Act for total control of speech via the Internet. Does the government know what it is doing? Or are they just blundering about in the dark?

If measures are to be judged not by stated intentions, but by actions, then the Broadcasting Act as the government conceives it is designed to subject all public-facing communication across the Internet to government controls, to be exercised by a regulatory agency.

It makes no difference whether you speak across the internet with a licence – which is permission from the state – or by virtue of a CRTC “exemption order”, which is a blanket authorization for communicating within the terms of the order. The “order” will set out the kinds of communication that will not be allowed. Speech the government does not like will be banned. It is as simple as that

Once you have grasped the extent of the overreach of regulatory authority, two questions present themselves. Can they get away with it? And why are they doing this?

 

As to getting away with it, that will depend on the scale of popular revolt in the short term and on how the Supreme Court rules on the question years from now. There is plenty of reason to think that the Broadcasting Act cannot be extended in this way. Yet, in the prevailing climate of fear about “populism” – meaning angry citizens saying rude things – we cannot dismiss outright the possibility that freedom of speech will be significantly qualified and restricted by whatever portion of the Act survives judicial scrutiny.

 

The “why” question goes to motives, and here we must speculate. We consider that these measures are conscious and deliberate, and not accidental or sloppy drafting. It can be observed that we live in a time of significant social and intellectual contestation. Nothing new here. What is new is the lack of confidence in the powers of reasonable citizens to arrive at sensible conclusions as opposed to conclusions the government will like. The elites lack confidence that the people have the necessary wisdom to determine their own best interests. Hence the need – as it is felt by large portions of the governing classes - for a “guided democracy”.

 

To be even blunter, I am convinced the elites have been scared out of their minds by the example of Trump being elected, and that they intend never to be surprised again by rogue expressions of popular will. For a more complete discussion of the Internet versus elite consensus, read Matt Gurri’s prescient and insightful The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

 

If these words seem ominous, they are meant to be. People have trouble believing what is before their own noses, as George Orwell reminded us back in the 1930s, when similar levels of contestation were present.

 

The point is not to judge C10 by what the government says about it, but by what it allows to happen. Hardly anyone has read the bill. Few follow what seems to be a relatively obscure bill through the House. The newspapers are captive of government subsidies and seem to be asleep or otherwise obsessed by COVID, with the exception of the National Post. The large carriers have been appeased and have no particular stake in freedom of speech issues. The Official Opposition has only just now begun to ring the alarms. But you, our readers, do have this stake.

 

Just as it took a few minutes for the Americans to realize they were being bombed at Pearl Harbor back in 1941, and that whether they liked it or not they were at war, so it is taking Canadians some time to wake up to the sneak attack, launched by powerful forces of government and tacitly supported by many in the media, against their freedom to communicate and ultimately, against them personally.

 

But wake up they will.

Now would be a good time.

 

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Timothy Denton is a lawyer by training who practices principally in telecommunications and Internet policy and domain name issues, with a strong concentration on explaining what the technology is and what it means.

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Guest Monday, 26 July 2021
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