Opinion: Online Harms Act focuses on the wrong end of the problem

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“If at first you don’t succeed,” goes the lyric, “try, try again.” Are the Liberals about to hum this fabled tune on their new Online Harms Act?

Make that “hum this fabled tune – again.” The current online harms bill is already a second draft after the first version was junked following its disastrous reception in the previous Parliament. How bad? The Trudeau government promised to bring it back within 100 days of the new Parliament that was formed some 800+ days ago.

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The current bill is unquestionably a better offering than the first. The Liberals have listened. If anything, the bill tries to do too much in too many places. Perhaps that’s why, after an initial positive reception, the boo birds are now offering their droppings on a(nother) piece of government legislation meant to wrestle the Internet into submission. On this, the current bill is an unhelpful sequel after a bruising time with the Online News Act and Online Streaming Act.

All this proves is that the problems chucked up by the Internet and the algorithmic masters of social media are exceedingly hard to tame. We have let tech run wild and are now struggling to rein it in. And no wonder; the world’s richest and most powerful corporations now (mis)control most of our platforms for speech.

If we’re ever going to get a grip on things, we need to work from the right end of the problem. By the time we’re cleaning up the Internet’s messes, it’s already too late. We need to stop the messes happening in the first place.

The government would probably argue this is what it’s trying to do with the Online Harms Act. But as the heated debate around the act’s controversial hate speech provisions proves, by the time you get to arguing about the end product – facilitated and delivered by the major tech platforms – you’ve already lost. More to the point, no government wants to be, or should want to be, defining or moderating speech.

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Better, then, to focus on structure and process. What makes the internet such an awful place to be is the way it’s architected and run. The real harms are advertising, algorithms, anonymity, and abuse. To lessen the last of these four As, you need to hobble the first three.

When future robot historians descend to describe humanity’s carcass, the introduction of the Facebook “like” button will feature prominently. When platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter went to an ad-based revenue model, they began baking online harms into their source code. Any platform that makes us the product by serving us up to advertisers needs to either be forced to charge us a monthly fee for the pleasure or be taxed up the wazoo. The platforms would treat us much better if we were customers than they do when we’re products.

It’s hard to remember, but these social media platforms used to treat us like human beings. We used to follow the people and things we actually wanted to follow, not the things they know deliver “engagement.” Algorithms initially designed to order and curate now work to keep us glued to our phones with sensational “content” so we can be monetized. Any service that curates via algorithms, especially platforms run on an ad-based revenue model, needs to be treated like a publisher, with all of the attendant legal responsibilities. Let the hate-mongers scream into the void; don’t shove them onto centre stage because it gets clicks.

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And when we speak on these platforms we need to do it under our own names. Putting an end to anonymity alone would clean up the lion’s share of abuse online. Better to solve for protecting the odd whistleblower rather than protecting the masses from anonymous bile or attack.

Target the ad-based model. Cut algorithmic engagement off at the knees. End anonymity online. Would these changes be hard to do? Yes. But they would go a long way to solving the problem, which is more than you can say for the current legislation. If at first, you don’t succeed …

Andrew MacDougall is a London-based communications consultant and ex-director of communications to former prime minister Stephen Harper. 

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