Employment & Labour

Digital charter strengthens combat on hate speech: Howden

By Paul Russell, AdvocateDaily.com Contributor

The introduction of a new Canadian digital charter to combat hate speech, protect online privacy and battle fake news is timely, says Toronto employment lawyer Deborah Howden.

“When you’re dealing with hate speech on digital platforms, it’s very difficult to get ahead of it and correct misinformation because it spreads so quickly and has such a broad reach,” says Howden, partner with Shibley Righton LLP.

“This charter is welcome, as it will help modernize our laws so that we can effectively address online hate speech and deception,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com.

According to a Canadian Press (CP) story, the charter announcement was made during a Paris conference of technology leaders.

“We look forward to working alongside internet companies, but indeed, if they do not choose to act, we will be forced to continue to act in ways that protect Canadians, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the conference.

Howden says the need for such a charter was shown by online postings before and after the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand earlier this year, which left 51 people dead at a mosque and an Islamic centre.

CP reports the man accused in the attacks allegedly posted a long manifesto beforehand, including numerous references to online conspiracy theories and hateful memes. During the attack, he used Facebook’s live streaming feature to show himself shooting people, with the video being reposted on numerous other sites.

“Our Criminal Code already addresses hate speech, but it’s insufficient because the digital world is so much more expansive,” says Howden. “We need legislation with more teeth that is broader.”

Existing legislation, such as the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, should be updated and modernized, she says.

“We’ve had laws against hate speech and discrimination for years. However, the internet now spreads these messages much faster and further afield than ever before,” Howden says.”

It sometimes can be difficult to define what is hate speech and what is legitimate opinion, she says, giving the example of how comments about immigration can easily cross this line.

“However, when an identifiable group is unfairly targeted through demeaning, cruel and derogatory comments, then it becomes hate speech,” Howden explains.

She applauds the federal government for creating this charter, intended to hold online companies responsible for their site content.

“It’s important to keep abreast of what’s happening online because we are talking about hateful comments that are intended to incite extreme feelings of enmity against a particular group,” Howden says. “In fact, there seems to be a resurgence of commentary against certain groups of people.

“Unless you have a digital charter that nips it in the bud, then you’re not being progressive enough to protect those communities who are the targets of hate.”

Websites that publish misleading information about people based on their religious beliefs or country of origin tie into the fake news issue, Howden says.

“If information is presented in a publication or online, many people reading it will assume it is true,” she says, adding the charter will strive to ensure that websites are used for legitimate purposes, and are free of hateful information.

“I think that social media platforms, such as Facebook, now recognize they have a role to play in ensuring that individuals who are posting are doing so in a responsible way, that does not incite and single out specific groups,” Howden says.

She notes that Facebook recently banned a handful of high-profile individuals accused of spreading hatred.

“All online platforms have a social responsibility to protect not only minority groups but any groups that are being unfairly targeted by false and discriminatory misinformation,” Howden says.

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