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MacDonald Laurier Institute

Bureaucrats should not be arbiters of our online world


18 minute read

From the Macdonald Laurier Institute

By Leonid Sirota and Mark Mancini

When it comes to regulating the internet, Ottawa tells Canadians to simply “trust the experts.”

The federal government has pursued a far-reaching internet regulation agenda. This includes the Online Streaming Act (previously known as Bill C-11) and the Online News Act (previously known as Bill C-18). Both are ostensibly designed to force foreign online platforms – streaming ones such as Netflix, Disney+, and YouTube in the former case, Google and Facebook in the latter – to provide support, mainly but not exclusively financial, to Canadian cultural and journalistic producers. The most recent addition to this regulatory programme, Bill C-63, partly targets online platforms too, but its reach is broader. It seeks to prevent a range of “online harms” – from the distribution of child pornography to hate speech.

These legislative endeavours have attracted commentary from all corners, not least from Macdonald-Laurier Institute experts. Much of the discussion has been critical of the government’s policies on the ground of their unwisdom, immorality, and possible unconstitutionality.

But we would like to take a different tack here and focus not on the ends pursued but the means employed by C-11, C-18, and C-63: the empowerment of administrative agencies as rule-makers and arbiters of Canadians’ online world. While they purport to regulate new technologies, business models, and cultural forms, these policies are a throwback to an old philosophy of government that subverts fundamental constitutional principles: democracy, the separation of powers, and the rule of law.

It is worth beginning with a brief restatement of what these principles mean. Democracy means the exercise of political power – law-making, in particular – by either the people themselves or, more commonly, through elected representatives. The separation of powers means that the making and execution of laws are different functions, not to be confused or conflated, and that adjudication of disputes in accordance with the law is a separate function still. The rule of law is a complex idea, but perhaps the pithiest formulation of its core meaning belongs to economist and political philosopher F.A. Hayek: it “means that government in all its actions is bound by rules … which make it possible to foresee how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances.”

Contrast this with the philosophy underpinning the government’s approach to internet regulation. This philosophy permeated the report of a panel commissioned by the federal government at the end of the last decade to propose reforms to Canada’s regulation of the internet. Published in January 2020, “Canada’s Communications Future: Time to Act” called for legislation that would “provide sufficient guidance to assist the [Canadian Radio-Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)] in the discharge of its duties, but sufficient flexibility for it to operate independently in deciding how to implement sector policy. To achieve this, legislative statements of policy should set out broadly framed objectives and should not be overly prescriptive.” Translation: the democratically elected Parliament should not bother with making actual rules; that would be the job of the bureaucrats at the CRTC. They know better – both what the rules should be and how to apply them. Parliament is their enabler, not their master, and the courts should defer to their judgments.

In fairness, the legislation ultimately enacted or considered by Parliament does not go quite as far in empowering the CRTC or a new Digital Safety Commission (DSC) at the expense of Parliament as that report had urged. But it does go far. Probably the most important example of this concerns the amenability of user content – the average TikTok video, rather than Netflix – to CRTC regulation. This was one of the major points of contention when Bill C-11 was before Parliament. The Bill itself – despite claims by the government to the contrary – quite clearly permitted the CRTC to regulate user content, though it did not require it to do so. Amendments to remove this discretionary power were roundly rejected at the government’s insistence, in favour of leaving the user content question open for decision by the CRTC – only for the government to issue a Policy Direction to the CRTC “not to impose regulatory requirements” on user content.

The real scope of the law, and hence the degree of its impact on the freedom of expression of ordinary Canadians, will thus be fleshed out through the interplay of policy directions from Cabinet and CRTC consultations and orders. The same goes for various other aspects of the Online Streaming Act, such as Canadian content and discoverability requirements to be imposed on online platforms. The Online News Act, had it functioned as intended, would similarly have given the CRTC the final say over the extent of the obligations of the platforms subject to it. (In reality, one of these two platforms instead banned the publication of news content, and to avoid the other doing the same thing, the government made a deal with it that eviscerated the act.) And under Bill C-63, the decisions as to whether an online platform’s policies are “adequate to mitigate the risk that users … will be exposed to harmful content” is similarly within the remit of the DSC, with little if any guidance from Parliament as to what is in fact required.

This way of doing things undermines parliamentary democracy as anyone, except some scholars of administrative law would understand it. The people elected to make laws do not, in fact, make them in any meaningful way. On the contrary, they pawn off responsibility for contentious policy choices to administrators; they enact no more than empty shells, politely described as “framework legislation,” full of blanks to be filled out later. This transgression against constitutional principle is compounded when Cabinet makes a mockery of the parliamentary process with its policy flip-flops, which can then be reversed by further Cabinet fiat. The excuse typically given for this dereliction of duty is that the problems to be addressed are too complex for parliamentarians to deal with, which only makes one wonder at their nerve to have put themselves forward to do a job they are concededly unqualified for in the first place.

Enthusiasts for the internet agenda may say that it remedies its democratic deficiencies by consulting with those subject to new registration requirements. Yet CRTC consultations on the Online Streaming Act provided no more than a shabby ersatz of what democracy is supposed to mean – debate and discussion in Parliament. The submission period was short,  and “industry-focused.” The CRTC ended up issuing orders requiring registration on a range of internet services that meet a $10 million revenue threshold, and the government issued a policy direction to the CRTC instructing that user content not be regulated. The CRTC’s regulatory plan for the Online Streaming Act is still being developed, and will likely involve further decisions about the reach of registration requirements. Whether the DSC does any better – if and when it implements Bill C-63 – remains to be seen. But, in any case, consultations that only include industry players, or some nominal number of users, cannot replicate an engaged and informed Parliament that weighs competing interests. Nor can it replace an engaged and informed citizenry, holding politicians to account for their choices at the ballot box.

Separation of powers fares no better. Instead of Parliament making laws, independent prosecutors bringing charges, and independent courts ruling on them, the CRTC and DSC combine their broad rule-making powers with the ability to both jawbone and outright prosecute online platforms, and to rule on the charges. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association rightly laments “the vast authority bestowed upon” the DSC “to interpret the law, make up new rules, enforce them, and then serve as judge, jury, and executioner.”

Here again, proponents of administrative power think they have an answer. Instead of the old-fashioned institutions wielding divided powers, they say the modern world requires the government’s full authority to be concentrated in the hands of experts. Agencies like the CRTC and, presumably, the DSC have the skills and wisdom to deal with the complex and increasingly difficult online environment. This claim is attractive in part because the layman often cannot comprehend the size and scale of challenges that modern regulation confronts, while politicians are all too often happy to demonstrate their unseriousness and ignorance.

But, in addition to its other problems, the vision of expert administrators who know better is simply unwarranted by the facts. For example, Konrad von Finckenstein, former chair of the CRTC, has told a Senate committee studying Bill C-11 that the CRTC simply does not normally deal with matters of this nature; and that the CRTC will likely need to hire contractors to fulfil its mandate under the legislation. The CRTC is also, by its own admission, not really up to speed when it comes to the universe of online media it is required to regulate under the Online Streaming Act: it has invoked the need to gather information about podcasting to justify its far-reaching registration requirements for platforms that host them. As for the DSC, it will of course be an entirely new bureaucratic structure with no existing expertise at all. Perhaps the government will appoint experts to it. But it doesn’t have to. Bill C-63 imposes no requirements as to the qualifications of the DSC’s members other than their being Canadian citizens or permanent residents. Under the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission Act, the same is also true of the CRTC.

Over-reliance on administrative regulation and enforcement undermines the rule of law too, by making the rules applicable to the internet uncertain and their application unpredictable. The legislation relies on vague terms that will only be fleshed out as the agencies that apply it go along, which will discourage innovation, chill expression, and incentivize platforms to take quick action against their users to avoid getting into trouble with the regulators. And if the victims of unfavourable rulings want to challenge them in actual courts, the Supreme Court’s precedents prevent judges from coming to their own independent assessment of what the law requires, but instead require them to yield to the bureaucrats’ interpretations unless these are not “merely” mistaken, but outright unreasonable. Even the requirements of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are dissolved in this bureaucratic acid; from the supreme law of Canada, they are diluted into values that must, to be sure, be taken into account, but only as a factor among others.

All this may seem like legalistic pedantry propounded by academics who do not care about the pressing needs of contemporary society. But that impression would be mistaken. It is precisely the government’s disregard for Canada’s constitutional foundations that ultimately ensures that the rules produced for it by its administrative instrumentalities are out of touch.

Instead of legislation reflecting Canada’s public opinion as represented in Parliament, we are to be governed by rules drafted by unrepresentative bureaucrats, potentially influenced by special interest groups with a privileged access to them. Instead of the exercise of coercive power being channelled through institutions with limited remits keeping one another accountable, we are told to trust experts who cheerfully admit having no real expertise to speak of. And instead of the law being predictably and impartially applied by judges who are not invested in the government’s policy and do not depend on government goodwill for reappointment, the law, and the constitution itself, only count insofar as they are consistent with administrative need.

It may be that we are stuck with the administrative state. Although some scholars have made arguments to the contrary, we believe that, as a matter of law, Parliament is entitled to delegate very considerable policy-making powers to agencies such as the CRTC and the DSC. If the government is set on pursuing its regulatory agenda through the old-fashioned means of creating and empowering bureaucratic structures, the courts will not save us, even though, as we have argued elsewhere, they have become rather more skeptical of the administrative state’s claim to be the solution to all the problems of the modern world than they used to be until fairly recently.

But the government having the authority to do something does not mean that doing it would be a good idea. It, and we the citizens, should embrace the judiciary’s skepticism of the vision of government-by-administrator that characterizes the federal government’s plans. More to the point, we should recall what our most important constitutional principles mean. If we are not to erode them, we need to reject the means the government is proposing to employ, as well as, arguably, the ends it is pursuing.

Leonid Sirota is Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and an Associate Professor in the School of Law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom, where he teaches public law. His research interests include the rule of law, constitutional interpretation, administrative law, the freedoms of conscience and expression, election law, and other aspects of Canadian and comparative public law.

Mark Mancini, a Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia, Peter A. Allard School of Law. He holds a J.D. from the University of New Brunswick, Faculty of Law, and an LL.M. from the University of Chicago Law School.

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MacDonald Laurier Institute

Anti-Jewish campus protests reveal ugly double standard when it comes to policing “free speech”

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From the Macdonald Laurier Institute

By Kelsie Walker for Inside Policy

Despite encampments trespassing on private property, and thus being, by all definitions, illegal, they’ve seen practically no disciplinary action.

Following widespread pro-Palestinian protest encampments popping up on American campuses, there was an influx of copycat encampments across major Canadian university campuses, including at the University of Toronto, McGill University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Calgary, the University of Ottawa, and Western University, among others. These encampments are demanding that universities divest from entities associated with Israel, accusing them of supporting apartheid and being complicit in genocide. The protests, intended to express solidarity with Palestinians but also rife with antisemitism and calls for violence against Jews, have sparked intense debates about the limits of free speech and the legal boundaries of protests on campuses.

What began as a story of peaceful activism has quickly turned into lawmakers, universities, and the police selectively enforcing the law on partisan lines, displaying both hypocrisy and inaction when it comes to handling protests associated with the left.

A new poll from the Angus Reid Institute found that two-thirds of Canadians (64 per cent) say the police give preferential treatment to certain groups when dealing with protests. Canadians of all political affiliations largely feel that police response and engagement at protests is not applied consistently, with three-in-five past Conservative (68 percent), Liberal (60 percent), and NDP (73 percent) voters saying so. While they differ on the question of who receives preference, given the recent events at Canadian universities, it is undeniable that left-leaning causes, and more specifically, pro-Palestinian protests, are given unfair leeway in comparison to causes deemed to be right-leaning.

While some have tried to frame the campus encampments as an issue of free speech, in many cases, the protesters are breaking clearly defined and communicated laws. Students are certainly free to protest. However, they must also comply with university policies and Canadian laws. Free speech allows individuals to express their opinions, even controversial or unpopular ones. However, when the expression of an opinion crosses into illegal activity, such as vandalism, trespassing, or the incitement of violence, it is no longer protected under the banner of free speech. Yet, pro-Palestinian protestors are demanding that their protests be held above the law, and such demands are being met.

Despite encampments trespassing on private property, and thus being, by all definitions, illegal, they’ve seen practically no disciplinary action. The majority of Canadian universities are either placating protestors’ demands by offering a list of concessions, or, they are simply letting protests proceed practically unchecked. Police did recently disperse the encampment at McGill University on June 6 – but only after protesters there escalated the situation by illegally occupying an administration building. While most protestors have good intentions, illegal and alarming activity is frequently occurring in protest sites. Encampments have, at times, seen physical conflicts with counter-protesters, the presence of anti-Canadian and anti-police slogans, the refusal of numerous orders to leave, have issued calls to incite violence, and in one instance, have even displayed shocking imagery depicting the lynching of Jews.

Consider McGill’s “peaceful” protest. Launched in late April, it quickly turned into a hotbed of intolerance. Protestors rejected the university’s offer of concessions (despite the offer being similar to those that have led to conflict resolution at other universities) and sent masked individuals to follow and harass senior administrators at their homes and offices. The encampment displayed profane graffiti, and even featured a hanging effigy of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  donning a striped outfit that resembled the uniforms that Jews wore in concentration camps during the Second World War. Are these truly displays of free speech, or something far more sinister?

Many of the encampments are demonstrating a striking intolerance to differing opinions and an unwillingness to reach a compromise with universities, with many protestors refusing to leave until all their demands are met. If the situation was reversed, would a pro-Israeli encampment be met with the same tolerance?

Well, the University of Toronto clearly says no. Recently, a pro-Israel encampment, created in counter-protest to the pro-Palestinian encampment on campus, was removed by campus security within minutes of being established. The justification? Unlike the fully fenced-in and untouchable “Little Gaza” that has existed and grown steadily on the campus for over a month, the counter-protest was simply small enough to remove. So, it turns out, universities are in fact able to remove encampments, but only when they are on the wrong ideological side (or, in this case, the “right” side). This double standard is alarming. Why are universities and the police so afraid to stand up to left-wing protests when they blatantly break the law? If encouraging “free speech” is the justification, then that very speech cannot be encouraged selectively.

While encampments at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta have been disbanded by police, most Canadian universities are not taking any action against illegal encampments. Indeed, some universities have reassured protesters that there will be no punitive actions taken towards them. The University of Toronto, the same university that was so quick to remove pro-Israeli protestors, even began its convocation ceremonies to the backdrop of a large pro-Palestinian encampment.

To be clear, I am not advocating for the forced end of protests. However, the inconsistent application of the law is troubling. This is part of a much wider issue in Canadian society, where there is a clear double standard on this issue. Just look at how the federal government reacted to the “Freedom Convoy” that gridlocked Ottawa in January 2022. In response to the anti-vaccine-mandate protest, the Trudeau government invoked the Emergencies Act and forcibly brought it to an end. Some Freedom Convoy organizers were arrested and their bank accounts frozen. A federal court ruling later declared the use of the Emergencies Act “unreasonable” and a violation of the protesters’ Charter rights.

Ironically, the same people who applauded the crackdown on the Freedom Convoy protesters are crying foul at the very thought of the police disbanding left-wing protest encampments on university campuses. As Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Everyone is in favour of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.”

While free speech is protected, it is not without limits. And it certainly shouldn’t be used as a phony justification for inaction, especially pro-Palestinian encampments make other students and staff feel unsafe on campus. The mobs are especially concerning for Jewish students, faculty, and staff who have suffered instances of anti-Semitic rhetoric, harassment, and exclusion on campus. In the face of such blatant anti-Jewish hate, how can they feel safe, respected, and valued by their institutions?

Protests are often intended to create discomfort; however, universities are sitting by idling while atmospheres of hatred and racism are being strengthened with each passing day. It is so severe that some Jewish students in the United States are taking legal action against their universities, under the claims that the institutions are failing to protect them from discrimination and harassment. If such hostility is allowed to continue unchecked, it is only a matter of time until legal battles emerge on Canadian campuses too. Universities are legally and ethically obligated to ensure that all students feel secure and respected, not allow a select few to run rampant all over university rules. There must be a principled, consistent approach to free speech and legal enforcement – one that transcends political affiliations and ensures that the rights and responsibilities of all citizens are respected equally.

Kelsie Walker is a project manager at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute where she primarily assists with the Defending the Marketplace of Ideas project.

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The Trudeau government’s latest assault on transparency is buried in Bill C-69

Published on

From the Macdonald Laurier Institute

By Aaron Wudrick for Inside Policy

The new powers granted to the minister of health under Bill C-69 are considerable. For example, they allow the minister to unilaterally make decisions regarding drug approvals and food safety regulations, effectively pulling products off the shelves of stores without the typical procedural safeguards. This concentration of power in the hands of the minister circumvents much-needed scrutiny and risks politicizing health decisions.

As the Trudeau government scrambles to pass its spring 2024 budget measures through Parliament before the summer recess, most of the media’s focus has centred on the budget’s headline measure, the increase in the capital gains inclusion rate. Unusually, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland chose not to include that change in its main budget bill, saying she would instead soon introduce those measures in a separate bill.

Meanwhile, the remainder of the budget measures are contained in Bill C-69, an omnibus bill that has attracted little media attention. That is a shame, as it contains provisions that warrant closer scrutiny, particularly the proposed changes to the Food and Drug Act. These amendments grant the minister of health sweeping powers, exacerbating the Trudeau government’s longstanding habit of undermining proper procedural channels when it finds them to be inconvenient.

The new powers granted to the minister of health under Bill C-69 are considerable. For example, they allow the minister to unilaterally make decisions regarding drug approvals and food safety regulations, effectively pulling products off the shelves of stores without the typical procedural safeguards. This concentration of power in the hands of the minister circumvents much-needed scrutiny and risks politicizing health decisions. It is not hard to see how such authority could easily lead to arbitrary or politically motivated actions, further diminishing public trust in a health system battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health Minister Mark Holland defends these new powers by arguing that they are necessary for protecting public health swiftly and effectively and suggests that only a “dishonest” minister would misuse such powers. He fails to mention that governance should not rely solely on the personal integrity of individual ministers but on robust, transparent processes that ensure accountability. It is concerning that Holland advocates bypassing established departmental procedures, which raises questions about the motivations behind these proposed changes.

A more appropriate regulatory approach would trust independent agencies, including Health Canada, to oversee the safety of health products. Establishing clear guidelines and procedures for evaluating and removing unsafe products would ensure consistency, fairness, and transparency in decision-making processes.

Unfortunately, this approach contrasts sharply with the Trudeau government’s preference for consolidating power and limiting oversight.

For instance, the Trudeau government has been criticized for its use of secret orders-in-council, which bypass public scrutiny and reduce transparency. These orders often contain sensitive decisions that the government simply prefers to keep out of the public eye.

The government has also allowed the federal access to information system to atrophy, with frequent delays and heavily redacted documents further undermining the principle of open government.

In 2017, the Trudeau government introduced changes that critics argued would limit the independence and effectiveness of the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO). These amendments allowed the government to control the PBO’s work plan and staffing, potentially reducing its ability to hold the government accountable. More recently, the government cut the budget of the Information Commissioner’s office, undermining the capacity of an already overwhelmed independent officer of Parliament to hold the government to account, with the commissioner herself noting that “this reduction in my budget will spell long delays for complainants who are seeking information from government institutions.”

Further examples of this troubling trend include the government’s proposal in the early days of the  COVID-19 pandemic that sought to grant the government extraordinary powers to tax and spend unilaterally – without parliamentary approval – for almost two years. Later in the pandemic, the government faced significant criticism from Auditor General Karen Hogan for the lack of transparency and accountability regarding the allocation and spending of tens of billions in relief funds: “I am concerned about the lack of rigour on post-payment verifications and collection activities,” Hogan said in 2022.

Taken together, a clear pattern emerges of a government that regularly seeks to undermine transparency, limit oversight, and concentrate power within the executive branch, and Bill C-69 is just the latest attempt.

The government should back off and drop these proposed new unilateral ministerial powers. Strong regulatory oversight, coupled with transparency and accountability, won’t impair the government’s ability to regulate health products – all while safeguarding democratic principles and public trust.

Aaron Wudrick is the Director of the Domestic Policy Program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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