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Losing Our Way on the Internet

Convivium contributor Peter Menzies argues new federal legislation to control political advertising on the Internet is a classic example of good intentions gone horribly wrong.

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Losing Our Way on the Internet July 11, 2019  |  By Peter Menzies
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The Internet was fun when Barack Obama was wowing the world with his social media finesse, Hillary Clinton was launching her campaign online instead of through a traditional news conference and the world was ooh-ing and aah-ing at the telegenetic #SunnyWays of Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

It seemed all that freedom of expression was an indication of society’s progress away from the traditional information gatekeeping of legacy media. Now people and ideas could connect directly. 

It was all good. Not even the fact that Taliban, ISIS and other jihad groups used it as a recruitment tool or to show live captive beheadings and burnings seemed to trouble governments or the public enough to spur calls for restrictions on its use. Horrific as those uses were, the Internet nevertheless was also a useful tool in tracking those who needed to be tracked. 

For 20 years or so, the Internet (which is a dumb pipe) and its passengers were working just fine without a lot of content regulation and restrictions. The world was changing for the better as idealistic millennials and others within the Twitterati used it to rally behind fashionable and often worthy causes. 

Groups such as Change.org and, influential in Canada’s 2015 election, Leadnow, thrived. The latter, for instance, seeks a “just, sustainable and equitable Canada, built and defended through the democratic power of an engaged public” which works together to make sure – and they are quite open about this – conservatives lose. 

Because nothing says democracy like conservatives losing.

Then Americans voted for Donald J. Trump. And the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. 

Suddenly “populists” were popping up everywhere and the flames of the peasantry’s torches were licking at the Gucci and Manolo Blahnik-clad feet of the cognoscenti. The Internet was broken. Democracy was in peril.

These events were, after all, no mere beheadings or cage-burnings. These votes were actual threats to democracy. The people and ideas that were freely connecting were no longer leading to the desired outcomes – the lure of which is so inescapable it is impossible to imagine that, unfettered, people might freely choose otherwise. The conclusion was clear: outside forces were now manipulating people in Western democracies. Russians, for sure. They have an established record in monkey business. Or the “far right.” 

Fascism was on the rise. It had to be. People in China have been hacking into corporate and government websites for years. Perhaps they had upped their game.

For many people, it is not possible to imagine that Trump won because Clinton was a terrible candidate with a trail of baggage leading all the way from Arkansas trailer parks to fanciful YouTube movie rebellions in Tripoli. Nor can the same smug crowd imagine that the inexorable sludge of condescension oozing from Brussels functionaries was the cause of the Brexit referendum outcome.

So it’s inevitable they would conclude that, in order to make sure this trend was brought to a halt, regulation was required. Governments have moved in swiftly and, in Canada’s case, that intervention seems to be leading to all kinds of exogenous consequences for online political expression. 

As things stand, Canada’s Bill C-76 would apply directly to messaging from 491 English – and 514 French-language – websites belonging to organizations that advance public policy positions. Online entities that wish to accept advertising from these (and any other groups that might qualify) have to set up special registries to confirm their identity. 

This maze of regulations has left many seeking to influence public opinion – a perfectly legitimate behaviour in a democracy – concerned that something so innocent as the posting of a “partisan” story on an organization’s Facebook wall could break the law. 

Opposition partisans claim the rules favour the incumbent government. Cash-hungry legacy media’s general acceptance of this state of affairs leads others to assume they are content with anything that might handicap their online commercial competition. 

Rather than being caught in the middle of all this, Microsoft has decided to refuse to accept all political advertising in Canada – and around the world for that matter. Just not worth the hassle, it appears. 

Google and Reddit are also out. Same with Kijiji and Amazon. Twitter and Yahoo are still thinking about it. Facebook, which like the others is fighting regulatory efforts to define them as publishers legally liable for the content posted, will nevertheless work to comply with the regulations and accept political advertising. 

If all those very well-resourced companies with large regulatory and legal teams have run the numbers and decided that the time and effort involved in compliance aren’t worth the potential revenue at stake, one can only imagine the dilemma faced by Canada’s small and mid-sized companies as they try to stay on the right side of the law.

Somewhere along this legislation’s road, it lost its way. Its aim to ensure fact prevails over fiction is worthy. But while the intent may have been to save the country from foreign fake news hackers and bots, there seems little to suggest either will suddenly decide to comply with the law.

Meanwhile, the business models of the nation’s honest, law-abiding advocates have become increasingly complex. Much like the ill-fated long gun registry, they are not the problem. 

Yet it is they who appear to be bearing the brunt of this awkward solution. 

I hope I am wrong. Sometimes I am. Often to my relief.


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