thumb-2023-05-09-liberal-policy-truth-online-journalism This article is more than 1 year old

The Liberal Party of Canada Wants to Regulate Truth Online. Even Justin Trudeau Thinks It’s a Bad Idea.

Experts say the policy is ‘obviously unconstitutional’, ‘anti-democratic’ and a ‘threat to freedom of the press’ in Canada

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The Liberal Party of Canada has adopted a new policy to stop the spread of untruthful information online, but Justin Trudeau doesn’t like the idea and experts warn the policy is unlike anything that exists elsewhere in the democratic world.

Last Saturday, in a room filled with only a handful of party members, Liberals quietly adopted 24 resolutions as official policy on the final day of the party’s national convention.

Those resolutions include a policy on “combatting disinformation in Canada” which, as worded, proposes to regulate the truthfulness of information online – sources of information that seem to range from news websites to ordinary social media users.

While it is now enshrined as official party policy, it is also non-binding.

Asked about the most contentious part of the policy, language to limit publication of information from unverified sources, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “that policy is not a policy we would ever implement.

Trudeau’s response came after days of cagey responses from the Liberal Party and Minister of Heritage that stopped short of explicitly rejecting the policy outright.

Here’s what you ought to know about the controversial Liberal policy and why experts, as well as party leader Justin Trudeau, think the policy is full of problems.


What the Liberal ‘online truth’ policy actually says

The official policy, which includes a lengthy preamble highlighting the threat of disinformation and the state of news media industry in Canada, states:

“BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Liberal Party of Canada …

Request the Government explore options to hold online information services accountable for the veracity of material published on their platforms and to limit publication only to material whose sources can be traced.”

Liberal Party of Canada 2023 policy resolutions

The policy has two key points:

  • The “veracity” of information online needs to be regulated in some way;
  • Information with no traceable “sources” should be restricted from being published.


Why an ‘online truth’ policy would likely be unconstitutional

In a recent blog post, Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-Commerce Law, called the policy “obviously unconstitutional and a direct threat to freedom of the press.”

“The resolution appears to contemplate establishing conditions for the publication of press reports with liability for failing to meet those conditions,” Geist told PressProgress. “Government establishing these limits would raise serious freedom of the press and freedom of expression concerns under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Geist also questioned the policy’s language around “traceable sources,” asking if that means journalists cannot rely on unnamed sources or if original documents need to be included in an article?

“If government establishes these conditions, it could have a chilling effect on the use of anonymous sources, whistleblowers and other coverage,” Geist said.


What do journalists think about an ‘online truth’ policy?

Senior members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery described it as a “media censorship” policy while World Press Freedom Canada condemned the policy as a potential infringement of freedom of the press.

Political columnist Paul Wells speculated any law based on the policy would require him to “clear my posts through the federal government, before publication, so the ‘traceability’ of my sources could be verified.”

Brent Jolly, President of the Canadian Association of Journalists, says his organization was not consulted on the policy and has serious concerns with the approach.

“This is definitely something we would have spoken out about way, way, way – like the minute it was presented to us,” Jolly told PressProgress.

“It’s kind of disturbing to see the solution presented to this problem,” Jolly said, adding that although the policy is “incredibly vague, reading between the lines, it sounds like a censorship bureau of some kind and it’s really tone-deaf to the role of an independent press in a democracy like Canada.”

“It just seems like a whole bunch of lofty statements, sort of threaded together without much real thought, put together on diagnosing a solution,” Jolly added. “It’s just all over the place.”

“It seems like a bit of a dog’s breakfast, frankly.”


How the Liberal ‘online truth’ policy came to be

The resolution arose from a “workshop on disinformation” organized by the Vancouver-Quadra Electoral District Association – the riding of Liberal MP Joyce Murray.

Catherine Evans, an EDA member and former Vancouver Park Board Commissioner, explained to PressProgress that she volunteered to take ideas from the group brainstorming session and develop policy language for the party’s convention. The policy was then referred to a “provincial prioritization process” and selected by a vote of members of the Liberal Party’s BC provincial section to be sent to the Liberal national convention in Ottawa.

Evans stressed the policy resolution is only a non-binding “recommendation” to the leadership of the Liberal Party from the party’s grassroots and would be subject to an internal party policy development process, which may include consulting with experts and doing additional research.


What was the intent behind the Liberal ‘online truth’ policy?

According to Evans, the policy resolution was responding to concerns about the spread of misinformation that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic and the weakened state of journalism in Canada.

“It’s more about things like health information,” Evans told PressProgress, recalling an incident where someone sent her an article claiming the US Center for Disease Control endorsed using Ivermectin. “I went further into the CDC website, and very clearly it said ‘do not take the animal version of this, this is not safe’.”

“We were all very concerned about disinformation,” Evans said, adding that members of her EDA were trying to figure out a solution to the question of “how do we restore some trust in our mainstream media?”

Evans conceded it’s “totally ironic” the policy is now being denounced by journalists, considering she was trying to “support” mainstream media and “perhaps lift it up in a way that Canadians know that it’s trustworthy and reliable.”


Was the ‘online truth’ policy seeking to regulate journalism and truth online?

Evans does not believe the policy she authored is unconstitutional and adamantly denies that the Liberal Party of Canada would ever implement a law that violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“The Liberal Party would never create a policy that knowingly contravenes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Evans said. “What we’re trying to do with this is protect democracy, not erode a very critical tenet of democracy, which is freedom of the press and expression.”

Despite this, Evans is fuzzy about who the policy would actually apply to, and whether that would include journalists.

Asked if the policy was intended to apply to journalists, Evans remarked that “Canadian journalism doesn’t have the same problem US journalism has,” pointing to FOX News’ recent settlement with Dominion Voting Systems over its fake election fraud claims as an example of the kinds of problems the policy was designed to address.

Would the policy target right-wing websites that push similar lies as FOX News? Evans said: “No, because the source of that stuff was FOX News. We know who the source was, right? So, it’s not like there’s not a problem of identifying a source.”

Evans elaborated that anonymity, not truth, is the bigger concern.

“There’s other platforms where you get anonymous postings,” Evans said. “You don’t know where it came from.” While “anonymous postings” are a concern, Evans is not sure about eliminating anonymous accounts on Facebook or Twitter: “I just don’t know the answer to that. I mean, there are policy professionals that can grapple with that issue.”

Evans also expressed being of two-minds on the question of how to handle whistleblowers or, as in the case of ‘Me Too’ allegations, situations where someone has legitimate reasons to shield their identities, conceding this is a “grey area” that would need to be ironed out.

“I don’t know how one would deal with that,” Evans said. “We don’t propose a solution, just identify a problem.”

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What does “sources” even mean?

Evans says criticism from those like Paul Wells and Michael Geist suggesting the policy would force journalists to divulge unnamed sources is a big misunderstanding.

“When I speak of sources, I meant, like, where is this health information coming from? Is it the Center for Disease Control or Gwyneth Paltrow?”

The confusion stems from different meanings of the word “source” – Evans says she used “sources” interchangeably with something like a citation or footnote.

“The term source is a technical term for journalists. And it’s also a general term,” Evans said. “So, we were using it in the general sense.”

“If a journalist posts something online and their name is on it, they’re the source. Okay, no further sourcing is required. They’re responsible for their own personal sources, but they’re the source. And that journalist can be held to account if their sources kind of lie to them. This is not a change from the current situation, there’s no change.”


How would an ‘online truth’ policy even work?

One of the main criticisms of the policy, raised by both Geist and Jolly, is that enforcing laws on truth would be completely unworkable.

“It feels totally unworkable,” Geist told PressProgress. “I can’t imagine special tribunals or auditors to review stories to ensure that they meet these conditions in a democracy.”

Jolly said the policy, as worded, sounds as if it is contemplating establishing a “censorship bureau.”

“I don’t know how any information would ever come to be surfaced,” Jolly said. “You would have journalists engaging in public interest investigative journalism and you would have, of course, politicians from whichever party denying, just like every other story that comes out.”

“It would be very much a zero sum game and at loggerheads between everybody’s version of what would be truthful and what would be accurate.”

Evans, the author of the policy, says she’s not sure how it would work either – she and the other party members who drafted the policy resolution would defer to the recommendations of experts who do “policy research.”

“I don’t know,” Evans said. “I mean, one would want more of (something) like the court system.”

That said, this hypothetical quasi-judicial process would not have the power to order the take down of content, only make recommendations to Internet companies.

“It’s not a censorship model of someone saying ‘take this down’,” Evans said. “It’s kind of more about ‘hey, there’s something on here that you need to look at’ and if it’s not legitimate, and I mean legitimate by them knowing this is a legitimate source.”


What is the Liberal Party of Canada’s response to the ‘online truth’ policy?

The Liberal response to the policy has been confusing and changes day-to-day.

In a statement to PressProgress on Monday, the Liberal Party of Canada reiterated its commitment to press freedoms, but would not directly say if the party would implement the policy as law.

“On the policy you reference, the Liberal Party of Canada always has – and always will – stand up for freedom of the press, and always respects the independence of the media and how journalists source their information,” Liberal spokesperson Parker Lund told PressProgress.

While the party’s statement brags that it has the “most open grassroots policy development process in Canadian politics,” it also noted “an official party policy does not automatically become part of the party’s next election platform.”

On Tuesday, the Office of the Minister Heritage released a statement to CBC News stating that a “Liberal government would never implement a policy that would limit freedom of the press or dictate how journalists would do their work.”

However, the Heritage Minister stopped short of explicitly rejecting the policy.

On Wednesday, Trudeau said it was not a “policy we would ever implement.”


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Luke LeBrun
Luke LeBrun is the Editor of PressProgress. His reporting focuses on the federal political scene, right-wing politics as well as issues in technology, media and culture.

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