How far should universities restrict freedom of speech? | Times Higher  Education (THE)


The new Broadcasting Act, Bill C10, may be stymied in the Senate of Canada, but the actual content of its policy objectives has just been released. Heritage Canada has published “Guiding Principles on Diversity of Content online”. The Guiding Principles have several advantages over the policy objectives of section 3 of the Broadcasting Act. They are not legislated, they can be revised and adapted according to the how the technologies or the societies that adopt them evolve, and they have no legally binding force. They have only the force of the large platforms to back them, if they sign on to the Guiding Principles.

It was Tim Wu in The Master Switch who pointed out that the structure of an industry mattered a lot more than any other factor in determining whether there could be censorship. Vertical integration of the movie-making business with distribution and movie theaters meant that the censors could govern the industry through the code of conduct, one that lasted from Mae West in the 1930s to Easy Rider in the 1960s.

The basic idea of the Guiding Principles is the achievement of diversity, equity and inclusion. It is a set of principles that its signatories are expected to work towards. The most important signatories will be the Internet platforms, because without their compliance, the Principles will be mere hot air.

The private sector companies to which the guiding principles are to apply particularly include “services operating online, whose primary purpose is to broadcast or distribute content or share user-generated content online.” Governments, media sector representatives, regulators and civil society organizations are likewise to be included as signatories.

The goal is to promote diversity on-line, understood as

1)     Creation access and discoverability of diverse content online

2)     Fair remuneration and economic viability of content creators

3)     Promotion of diverse, pluralistic sources of news and information as well as resilience against disinformation and misinformation

4)     Transparency of the impacts if algorithmic treatments of online content.


Signatories are to agree to implement these goals within the scope of their responsibilities and to develop specific commitments by December 2022 at the latest, to show concrete actions they will take to implement these guiding objectives”.

There follow a number of principles which assume, as a matter of fact, that

a)     There are “equity deserving groups” whose access is limited

b)     Hate, racial prejudice, disinformation and misinformation “can disproportionately affect indigenous people and equity deserving groups”.

c)     “Equity deserving individuals and groups” are defined as those facing significant barriers to participation in different facets of society, a marginalization that could be created by attitudinal, historic, social, economic, legal and environmental obstacles.

Having seen the cartoons of the kids of various heights standing on boxes of various heights to see the baseball game over a wooden fence, “equity” may reasonably be interpreted to mean active measures to overcome the consequences of inequalities, natural or artificial. The term ‘equity’ involves, in modern parlance, an ongoing governmental interference to achieve goals that might not otherwise be achieved in the absence of governmental actions.

The Principles are organized around themes:

·       Creation access and discoverability of content

·       Fair remuneration and economic viability of content creators

·       Promotion of diverse, pluralistic sources of news and information as well as resilience against disinformation and misinformation

·       Transparency of the impacts of algorithmic treatments of online content.


The last-mentioned goal says that “content recommendation algorithms and their developers should minimize potential systemic biases and discrimination in outcome, related to such things as race, sexual orientation, gender identity and ability.”

Content recommendation algorithms now seek to interest me in what is related to what I have previously expressed an interest in. If I have expressed interest in videos of Andrew Camarata fixing bulldozers, the algorithm is likely to recommend other machine-oriented males fixing tractors, chainsaws, and building log cabins. Inevitably the algorithms will direct me to things of interest to males, such as myself. I imagine the same happens with videos on golf, tastes in music, physics, flower gardens, or cooking, Japanese art or any taste whatever. How then, it may be asked, will an algorithm correct for systemic bias in male oriented videos if I am a male, and female oriented videos if I were female?

The Guiding Principles do not say, but they expect content recommendation systems to “respect freedom of expression in a way that allows for safe and diverse content.” In other words, safety and diversity, as defined by governments or the platforms, are to constrain freedom of expression.

The Guiding Principles are a kind of Broadcasting Act for the Internet, or a set of objectives that the platforms are expected to implement  By this I mean that the system it envisages is systemic, organized, comprehensive, global (as far as Canadians will see) and subject to government regulation, and that in Annex A to this document, the signatories are expected to develop by December 2022 at the latest “concrete actions they will take to complement the guiding principles.  These specific commitments will remain evergreen and continue to evolve”.

The great advantages for the government, in its efforts to regulate the Internet, are that the Principles utterly bypass legislation, need no Parliamentary approval, require the cooperation of the platforms but not of society, and subject large areas of private tastes to algorithmic manipulation.

The Guiding Principles are creepily totalitarian, and yet one imagines the authors of this document think of themselves as being great public benefactors. In order to explain what I mean, I ask you, as a thought experiment, to replace the content of the particular goals to be achieved by the guiding principles. Look at the whole thing, and ask yourself what the document, conceived as a whole, says. It says in short, that speech carried across the Internet is to serve particular purposes. All speech, everywhere, that is carried on the Internet.

Agreement or disagreement with the guiding principles as they are stated is less important than the whole purpose of the document. Take out the language about diversity, equity and inclusion (the new modern woke credo) and replace it, in this thought experiment, with any other set of goals to be achieved. These goals could be anything: the divinity of Christ, the supremacy of the Aryan race, the sanctity of the Roman Church, the triumph of scientific socialism, the grandeur of the Aztec Sky God Huitchilopotchtli, the preservation of the British Empire, or the values of the Enlightenment. So let [x] stand for the content of the Guiding Principles. Forget whether you agree with them or not. Just think of the Guiding Principles as a block of ideas that can be lifted out and replaced with some other set of desiderata. In effect, by calling the Principles an evergreen document, Heritage Canada virtually guarantees that they will be revised in time.

Then perhaps it becomes clearer that my point is not the DEI principles, though they are creepy enough. It is the idea that everything on-line should be aimed at any guiding principle at all.

Would you think it normal that the publishing industry in Canada be enjoined to publish books that exclusively promote a certain political agenda?

Would you think it right that speech across various telephone and voice applications be organized to conduce to the achievement of diversity, equity and inclusion?

To make the point even clearer, I recall the story of a Canadian diplomat who served in the Soviet Union, as it then was, in the Brezhnev era. I asked whether there was freedom of speech in the Soviet Union. He said ‘yes there was, absolute freedom of speech’. I was startled.

-What do you mean absolute freedom of speech?!!

- If you are out on the ice fishing in winter, and in your shelter, and out of range of prying microphones, and talking with people whom you have known all your life or from high school, and you have developed trust over decades, you can talk about anything. And they do. They talk about stuff no one talks about here, like whether Hitler was right to invade Stalin’s USSR, or whether Communism is a pile of crap, or whether the USA is actually imperialist. There is complete freedom of discussion. You just have to be careful with whom and where you share your ideas.

People need to look at the Guiding Principles from this perspective. Canada will have complete freedom of speech. Just not the kind we have been used to. Thank you, Peter Grant.