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ANTHONY FUREY: The Digital Charter talks about restricting social media, but offers few specifics

Federal Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains tours the facility in Summerside.
Federal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains is shown in Summerside, P.E.I. in this file photo.

“It’s that simple,” says Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, at the end of the brief video the government posted online to explain their new Digital Charter that was released Wednesday .

Simple? You could’ve fooled me.

The entire text – and there’s a lot of it – is made up of sentence after sentence of borderline meaningless bureaucratic jargon. Like this: “This plan reflects our commitment to a partnership-driven approach to build innovation ecosystems in Canada and deliver simpler, more efficient and more coordinated supports to firms at all stages of growth and Canadians at every stage of their lives.”

It goes on and on like this. You’ve got to bring out a magnifying glass and play detective to find the few sentences that contain actual content.

The whole thing is like one of those TED Talks where somebody with too much confidence and too little self-awareness spends a whole lot of time and fancy words alternating between saying absolutely nothing and saying something so obvious that it doesn’t need saying in the first place. (Wait, did I just accidentally come up with the most accurate one-line summary of Justin Trudeau to date? But I digress.)

Now it would be one thing if this babble was being rolled out for the sole purpose of, say, revising something like the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) to bring it more in line with emerging online challenges. And that is in fact one of the things the Digital Charter plans to do.

Fair enough. The online world is changing, therefore the corresponding laws and protocols ought to change as well.

That’s not the only thing in the works though. You wouldn’t know it from reading most of the media coverage of the charter or from studying the document itself, but this is the vehicle the Liberals are planning to use to regulate and restrict social media companies and what people can do and say on them.

The charter actually comes with 10 principles – kind of like Trudeau’s answer to the Ten Commandments. And while the top few are rather simple and inoffensive (like the first one about “Universal Access”) it gets controversial towards the end.

Principles eight and nine are about eliminating hate speech, political misinformation and electoral interference. These all sound like bad things that nobody wants and we’ve heard a lot of hand-wringing about them in recent years. But what do they actually mean? They’re not technical terms. There is no legally precise definition of them. And does the Digital Charter offer any firm definitions? It does not.

Despite Trudeau having gone on for months about vague notions like hate speech, his government still isn’t offering up any robust definitions. Bains says more will come in the weeks ahead. It better. Because if you’re going to restrict something – especially something like individual online activity – you better be able to first define it.

It’s troubling that in the lead-up to a federal election an incumbent PM is threatening to enact prohibitions and punishments for certain types of speech without breaking any of it down.

Maybe they’ve just bitten off more than they can chew. It’s a tall order to overhaul all of this with a single omnibus document and it would be better to break it down into separate measures.

But have they done this on purpose? Did they choose to lead with the relatively boring stuff about updating PIPEDA in the hopes that our eyes glossed over by the time we got to the part about political misinformation?

Canadians ought to seek answers to these questions. Despite what Bains says, it’s not simple at all.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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