Using the ‘Harm’ Argument to Censor Online Speech
October 4, 2022
Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, Canadian Heritage minister Pablo Rodriguez, Gov. Gen. Mary Simon at cabinet swearing-in ceremony.

From left: Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, Canadian Heritage minister Pablo Rodriguez, Gov. Gen. Mary Simon at cabinet swearing-in ceremony. Image via Flickr (Public Domain)


What constitutes harm?

This is the question currently debated by Canadian lawmakers surrounding the Online Harms Bill — a controversial bill currently under development that seeks to protect vulnerable people online and curb the dissemination of ‘harmful’ content.

In July 2022, the Canadian Heritage Department — the department tasked with overseeing the online harms bill — restarted the consultation process. The consultation process is part of the Canadian federal government’s efforts to revive the bill.

Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has been trying to push the bill forward despite an earlier version introduced last year that was met with widespread criticism. While lawmakers haven’t yet reached a consensus on what exactly is meant by ‘harm,’ there seems to be unanimous agreement that “we have to do something,” Rodriguez told reporters.

Rodriguez added, “[P]eople are seeing things that they shouldn’t be seeing on the internet, facing threats, receiving all kinds of stuff, very nasty stuff… and it’s our obligation as a government to act.”

Rodriguez is also behind advancing another highly contested bill, Bill C-11, that would see a more regulated internet for Canadian users and creators alike. It seems Rodriguez is on a mission to regulate the internet in more ways than one.

Based on the initial proposal, we know that lawmakers seek to include five types of content they deem harmful, including: terrorist content; content that incites violence; hate speech; non-consensual sharing of intimate images; and child sexual exploitation content. While these definitions are defined in the Criminal Code, it is noted that lawmakers may further modify them to a ‘regulatory context,’ which may cause confusion, increase censorship, and potentially undermine the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Every one of these categories is subject to different interpretations depending on who is assigning meaning to it. We already know that hate speech laws can be used as a tool to silence marginalized voices or quash dissent. We know that terrorist content can be subject to various interpretations, e.g., some Canadians have expressed concern that Muslim Canadians may be disproportionately impacted. Even defining ‘child sexual exploitation content’ has become more contested in this age of polarization and cultural degradation.

Some Canadians are even calling for the removal of ‘conspiracy theory’ content. This concept, much like the concept of ‘harm,’ comes up against the same challenges and limitations. Who would determine what is a ‘conspiracy theory’? This concept could easily be used as a tool to silence anyone who holds an opinion that deviates from the status quo.

Lawmakers are also tossing around the idea of implementing a 24-hour takedown requirement for ‘harmful’ content. This may force online platforms to “over compliance” and preemptively take down content that does not fall within the ‘harmful’ categorization. Canadians who want to challenge the removal of their content may also be subject to a new appeal system which may further bureaucratize an increasingly sanitized and regulated internet.

The government is expected to hold public hearings to give Canadians the opportunity to voice their concerns, though based on past hearings (particularly for Bill C-11), it’s unclear whether these concerns will actually be fairly heard by MPs.

Ultimately, those who argue for heavy-handed moderation often cite the reason of ‘harm’ as to why certain speech should be censored, but they’re often sticky on details as to what would be considered harmful.

While defining ‘harm’ is one part of the problem, the other is actually enforcing it.

While the government can pass laws stipulating what is harmful and on what grounds, it’s up to online platforms to actually enforce these new rules. These platforms already wield so much power online–this move would give them even more power to censor content with the government’s go-ahead.

Tech companies are already susceptible to their own set of biases. Content moderators may be liberal in the way they apply this law depending on their own belief systems. For them, it would be easier to justify the removal of content if the definition of ‘harm’ is so wide ranging. Platforms may take the extra steps to remove content they personally disagree with, not content that is necessarily deemed ‘harmful.’ While this is already being done on major tech platforms, this law would give even more power to Big Tech and away from the user.

Bills like this are dangerous because they rely on broad concepts that could easily be interpreted in such a way that punishes users.

Nations, including Canada, may have delineated hate speech laws to determine what is considered hateful, but regulating the concept of ‘harm’ would take it so much further.

In a polarized climate, this bill can be easily used to silence wrongthink, punish dissidents, and facilitate a chilling effect on online discourse. Ultimately, passing a bill that primarily revolves around the premise of what is deemed ‘harmful’ would be a disaster for online speech.


Animal rightsFeaturedFelice Basbøll
Animal Rights and the Challenge of Activism

Animal Rights and the Challenge of Activism


Painting by José Jiménez Aranda at The Walters Art Museum

“How do you know someone is vegan?” “Don’t worry, they’ll tell you!” We all know it. Animal Rights activists are annoying and pushy. They will ‘shove their beliefs down your throat’ when you are just trying to enjoy your lunch. Whether How I Met Your Mother or South Park is your show of choice, you will have seen this notorious creature represented on screen, and given the recent growth in the movement, you probably know someone in your own life who always ruins a dinner party. Maybe you, like me, are the annoying vegan.

EnvironmentFeaturedRozali Telbis
In Defense of Climate Protesters

In Defense of Climate Protesters


“Emblem 45” by Michael Maier (1617)

Acts of civil disobedience often emerge out of a sense of desperation in which citizens feel they are not being heard by decision makers by other means, and so they are forced to seek alternative ways to be heard and to affect change. The very function of civil disobedience is to protest against injustice—a requirement for any democratic society, though it is often portrayed as a foolish, juvenile activity reserved for people on the lower rungs of society.

FeaturedFree speechMark White
How to counter Holocaust denial–a particular type of hate speech

How to counter Holocaust denial–a particular type of hate speech


Treblinka train station sign

What does it mean, to ‘counter hate speech with more speech’?

Hint: it doesn’t mean 5 minutes for the Jews and 5 minutes for Hitler.

In 1971, over the course of several months, historian Gitta Sereny trudged regularly into a prison in Dusseldorf, Germany to sit across a small table from Franz Stangl, former commandant of the extermination camp Treblinka. Between April and June of that year, Sereny collected over 70 hours of interviews with Stangl who died on June 28–within hours of her last visit. For the following 18 months Sereny continued researching details of the stories Stangl had told her and to speak to people who had known him when he was in charge of killing operations at Treblinka.