Broadcast Act changes are not about freedom of speech

Posted on May 12, 2021 in Governance Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors

Parliament is currently debating new legislation that would bring streaming and social media platforms like YouTube under Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) regulation. The bill is focused on boosting professionally produced Canadian content, but a recently proposed amendment that could include some user-generated content has reignited the fraught debate about “free speech” on the internet.

Critics insist that engaging with these platforms is just basic, fundamental freedom of expression; merely a new way to participate in the public square. From this perspective, it’s understandable why any mention of regulation stokes fears of censorship.

The question of how content uploaded to social media platforms should be regulated is not fundamentally a question of free speech, though. Nothing in Bill C-10 suggests curtailing any Canadian’s right to freedom of expression. The relevant question is how much access to broadcasting the average internet user is entitled to.

Traditional broadcasters already deny countless people the reach their platforms provide every day. This is not censorship. Traditional media is bound by codes of ethics — and CRTC regulations — that dictate basic standards of journalistic integrity, such as truth in advertising, fact-checking sources, and issuing corrections. Social media platforms currently have no such standards, despite their broader reach.

The companies that own these platforms operate some of the most powerful and complex supercomputers on Earth. They use the largest scale and most sophisticated algorithms in existence to target users with an endless stream of recommendations that reinforce existing world views, fuelled by comprehensive databases of private user information.

The question is not about what users should or should not be allowed to post on these platforms, then. It is about the alleged obligation the platform operators have to provide access to this trifecta of broadcasting jet fuel to anyone who wants it, regardless of the consequences.

These three factors — the sheer power of modern computing infrastructure, proprietary algorithms, and granular data about specific users — make the internet a fundamentally different medium than TV, print, or radio.

It has never been possible before to hand-pick the recipients of a message and draw them into a never-ending stream of similar content so that it spreads among networks of like-minded people sheltered from any counter messaging or balanced information.

Regulating content on social media platforms is not an assault on free speech. It is a necessary and urgent issue only government has the power to tackle. Social media as an experiment in absolutist freedom of speech and self-regulation is an unmitigated disaster.

There is no longer any doubt that it results in more loneliness and polarization; higher rates of depression and suicide, especially among youth; increased memory and attention deficits; not to mention the uncontrolled spread of misinformation. This is just the beginning of a long list of the well documented harms of social media, ultimately driven by the race for human attention.

Free speech is not the same as freedom to broadcast or freedom from accountability. Advocates for an absolutist definition of free speech that includes the freedom to exploit modern technology without consequence ignore the deleterious effects of this world view on broader society.

The current debate around free speech and Bill C-10 is too narrowly focused on this kind of definition. Protecting the mental health of children, real life social relationships, the ability to focus and learn, and democracy itself need to be prioritized in any discussion about regulating social media.

It could be used for the benefit of humanity, but not without some dramatic changes to current terms of acceptable use. Unrestricted access to the most powerful broadcasting platform in history is nobody’s right.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 12th, 2021 at 9:47 am and is filed under Governance Policy Context. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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