Canada is considering whether to force social media companies to remove hateful and extremist content online.
That comes after a spate of terrorist attacks in New Zealand, Quebec City, Pittsburgh and other places where right-wing extremists have used the internet to spread hate speech and incitements for others to commit similar violence targeting minorities who they wrongly assert are part of a broader effort to “replace” and subjugate white people.
“We will look at that very, very carefully,” said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale when asked specifically if the government is considering legislation to force social media companies to remove hateful and extremist content.
“This has been a subject of discussion among ministers at the Five Eyes meetings and at the G7 meetings where ample discussion has been held on how we encourage the social media platforms to move quickly and efficiently to deal with toxic communications like this that incite violence and hatred and obviously do great damage to social cohesion.”
Goodale said the details of how such a plan could work still need to be worked out and he hopes companies will take initiative to act on their own.
But what they are doing now is not enough, he said.
“We’ve got to find a way to identify those rapidly, even before they have the chance to be posted in the public domain, and bring them down.”
WATCH BELOW: Canada condemns ‘act of terrorism’ in Christchurch
Last week, a white supremacist opened fire in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 Muslims at prayer.
Dozens of others were injured and remain in hospital.
Prior to the shooting, which the gunman streamed live on social media, the 28-year-old white man posted a so-called “manifesto” online in which he said he had been radicalized on the internet and made repeated references to the conspiracy theory known as the “Great Replacement,” on which right-wing extremists have long been fixated.
But the facts that the shooter made repeated references to other right-wing extremists such as the shooter who killed six Muslim men in a Quebec City mosque in 2016 and admits to having been radicalized online are raising questions about whether the time has come for governments to step in.
While Australian internet service providers also were able to almost immediately block users from accessing websites hosting the shooter’s video, which began being circulated online by extremists during and after the massacre, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is calling for a global crackdown on social media in the wake of the shooting.
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He has said he wants the companies forced to adjust their algorithms to screen out hateful content.
In Germany, for example, social media platforms and search engines are banned from showing Nazi content to users with a German IP address.
On Monday, Canadian political leaders offered condolences on the floor of the House of Commons for the victims of the mosque shootings and in his speech, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hinted that more needed to be done to crackdown on those spreading hatred and violent content.
“The path that we’re going down is dangerous and unsustainable. People are tired of fighting this alone, without the full backing of their leaders,” he said.
“But we can take a stand, here and now, in Canada and around the world, and say that enough is enough. That the days of spewing hatred and inciting violence without consequences are over. We owe it to the people of Christchurch.”
While the government this month announced $366,985 in funding for new research into the beliefs, motivations, activities, and connections of right-wing extremism in Canada, Goodale also said there is more than needs to be done.
Goodale said it is clear the public is losing patience with social media companies.
“I think the public is beginning to lose some patience with the ‘we’re doing our best’ argument. They want to see effective action and I think we need to examine all of the tools,” he said.
Goodale added that bigger companies with more research and technological capabilities will be expected to share that with smaller companies to make sure they all can act much more quickly and effectively to block extremist content online.
“Hopefully the platforms will be prepared to move quickly enough to do it simply as a matter of good public policy and basic human decency,” he said. “If they aren’t prepared to move as quickly as the public will demand, then we’ll have to consider all the other tools we have available to ensure that it happens.”
Getting legislation through the House of Commons could be a tight fit given there are just 10 sitting weeks left until the end of the session.
WATCH BELOW: Ardern says agencies aware of rise in right-wing extremism
When the House of Commons rises at the end of June, it will not resume until after the election in October.
“We want to think our way through this very carefully but that does not mean taking a long time to do it,” he said.
“I would think on a topic like this one, with the kind of statement that we heard in the House of Commons last Monday, there would be a common will even in this very difficult Parliament to get it done at the earliest possible moment.”
Amira Elghawaby, a board member with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said funding for research and a tougher crackdown on platforms is needed.
“We need more focus on how we’re going to hold the social media platforms to account. So number one we need the research — we need the investigation we need to prioritize this public safety threat. You know at the same par as they have been looking at religious extremism,” she said.
“Number two they need to be looking at the social media platforms and finding ways to hold them to account for allowing or allowing the proliferation of hate to go you know unchecked.”
She also added that there needs to be more effort at countering the misinformation spread by right-wing extremists about immigration.
“We need to be much more heavily investing in awareness campaigns around issues of multiculturalism diversity immigration to counter the misinformation and hate that these groups are propagating and which you know has been seeping into mainstream discourse,” she said.
“So we really need Canada to step up to addressing these issues on all levels of government because at the end of the day this type of ideology and hate is really not only a threat to minority communities it’s a threat to our society as a whole. ”
What would it take for internet service providers to do more too?
Telstra, Vodafone and Optus all confirmed Tuesday they are actively blocking Australian customers on their networks from accessing websites that show the video of the March 15th shooting in New Zealand that killed 50 people.
Here in Canada, experts say telecoms could technically do the same — but there is far too much red tape.
Platforms such as platforms 4chan, 8chan and LiveLeak were some of the targeted websites, according to Australian media.
The video of the massacre on Facebook for about 17 minutes using a head-mounted camera until police told the social media company to remove the video.
After the attack, the video was shared on Twitter, YouTube, Whatsapp, Instagram and Reddit. The social media platforms took steps in the hours after the attack to remove copies of the video.
The Australian telecom companies did not block these social media companies, according to The Guardian.
In a statement, Vodaphone said it had blocked dozens of sites still hosting the footage, and although it may be an inconvenience for users, the company believes “it’s the right thing to do in these extreme circumstances to help stop the further distribution of this video.
“In Australia, blocking requests are generally made via the courts or law enforcement agencies, however, this is an extreme case which we think required an extraordinary response,” Vodafone said.
WATCH: New Zealand PM says country attempted to remove video of mosque shootings
Major Canadian telecommunications companies could “technically” do the same, according to David Gerhard, an associate professor at the University of Regina’s department of computer science.
“In fact, these telecom companies have been arguing with the CRTC for the right to block certain websites, which the CRTC has denied because it would violate the principle of net neutrality,” he said.
For example, last year, large Canadian media companies asked the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to help protect their ownership and licensing rights by setting up an independent agency to help locate websites with pirated material.
The companies wanted the CRTC to require internet providers to block access to pirated material. But the CRTC denied the request.
David Skillicorn, a professor at Queen’s University School of Computing, said this CRTC ruling meant there currently isn’t any wiggle room for Canadian telecom companies to block websites, even in event of shootings.
“Austalia and Canada are similar in so many ways, but this is an area where they are so different,” Skillicorn explained. “Australian ISP’s are more sensible, and Canadians seems to be more conservative.”
WATCH: The rules of net neutrality in Canada
“In Australia, they did for a defence reason, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission,” he said, adding that this approach would not fly in Canada.
He said many telecommunication companies in Australia have strict control over some content, so blocking several websites after a terrorist attack is not a big step for them. But the CRTC has a more hands-off approach due to net neutrality.
“This is the case in point where you would like an ISP to act, but they can’t here. After the CRTC ruling last year, it would be too much of a drastic step,” he said. “There would be a lot of push back from net neutrality folks.”
Gerhard agreed, saying Canadian carriers are not allowed to block content of any kind, as this is the foundational argument for net neutrality.
Under net neutrality, internet providers are supposed to treat all content equally. So if an internet service provider (ISP) owns the content, it cannot favour its own users.
But Gerhard said there are situations like this, and others (like online predatory websites targeting children), in which case the public good would benefit from selective blocking of web content.
“In this case, it would be up to the CRTC to allow exceptions to net neutrality, and define what those exemptions might be,” he said.
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