National Post (National Edition)
A futile Canadian initiative
The idea that democracy can be salvaged through the sanitization of the speech that sustains it is both confused and dangerous. The Public Policy Forum's grandly named Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression thinks otherwise. It recently announced a plan for the federal government to assert a measure of control over social media platforms by imposing a “duty to act responsibly” and creating more agencies to work out what that entails.
The commission called for the creation of a new regulatory agency to lead the development of a code of conduct that would guide parties under its supervision. A new “social media council” would work out the speech policies that platforms would follow. Measures would be taken to enable people and groups to seek redress for offending content by means of an electronic virtual tribunal.
The Commission on Democratic Expression joins a number of initiatives that seek to curtail the powers of the large platforms. Some, like Columbia University's Tim Wu, propose to break them up in the way the U.S. split John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil into 34 separate companies back in 1911. Some propose getting rid of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects the large platforms from the liabilities of a publisher. Some propose declaring the platforms to be national or governmental in nature, thus applying the U.S. Bill of Rights to them.
No one has a complete, elegant, agreed-upon solution or set of responses, but more governmental control seems appropriate to many, especially Heritage Canada. The Public Policy Forum report and the work that led to it were sustained by grants from the federal department. Another recent study showing that Canadians were ready for greater controls on speech online was likewise funded by Heritage Canada.
Where there's smoke, there's a smoke machine.
The villains of the report are online “hate” and disinformation, but its deeper concern is with the commercial imperatives of the online platforms. At page 12, the report says: “Structural biases (are) baked into the business models of the companies that have come to dominate internet traffic and revenue.” And at page 18: “Many of the harms perpetrated on social platforms are therefore not simply the result of individual bad actors but are a function of how these information systems are designed.”
If the history of regulated industries is any guide, however, the platforms that supposedly are the problem would themselves be the main beneficiaries of the protection that a code of conduct would provide them. The chief winners in these situations are incumbents, not dissidents. Platforms have no interest in being broken up. They draw their power from economies of scale, from the attention of the millions of users who post to them and from figuring out how to keep these millions engaged in the platform. If the proposals of the commission were adopted, the platforms will happily be tamed. They almost certainly will become the predominant voices in the projected social media council. Co-optation is always the goal of the incumbent. Just as AT&T accepted price regulation in 1919, so will the large platforms accept speech regulation in the 2020s. It protects their market power.
And what about the dissidents, left, right and centre? What about those who contest the efficacy of lockdowns for COVID, or the reality of global warming, the truth of critical race theory or dissent from financial orthodoxy (think of former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis)? For the Commission on Democratic Expression, heresies and “hate speech” sprout where disinformation reigns and wicked ideas are propagated by ignorant people outside the boundaries established by the enlightened. After all, the duty of the enlightened is to regulate public discourse.
Democracy is tough, risky, and freewheeling. People need to refresh themselves in the classic arguments for free speech before being lulled by the well-meaning advice of the commission. Jonathan Rauch has called these types “kindly Inquisitors.” Free speech involves a rough, never-ending and democratic process of sorting truth from error. It is a contest. It replaced the previous rule by a Platonic Guardian elite, where the best and the brightest determined the boundaries of thought and expression. Appalled by opposition from the unlettered, the Guardians seek to still the voices of the conspiracy nuts who think that government is seeking to take away their freedoms and livelihoods. All for the best of motives, of course. Viewed from this perspective, the Commission on Democratic Expression would be better named the Council of Platonic Guardians. Be careful: a vigorous refusal of their claims to govern us might be considered “hate speech.”
FREE SPEECH INVOLVES A ROUGH, NEVER-ENDING AND DEMOCRATIC PROCESS OF SORTING TRUTH FROM ERROR.