Chairman’s report 2023

by on July 1, 2023

Chairman’s report 2023

Good afternoon friends and welcome to the 2023 Annual General Meeting. The President will speak shortly and pass on well deserved praise for those who havetoiled for the cause of a free and open Internet. I would be remiss in not mentioning especially Philip Palmer for his many important submissions and appearances before Parliamentary committees, and to Franca Palazzo our executive director, for keeping the ship afloat. Philip celebrates a birthday tomorrow, so we congratulate him on another year of life well lived.

Trusting that Philip will say all the right things, I will move to the issue that most concerns me. It is neither C11 or C18, the two laws recently passed that bring chaos and disorder to the Canadian Internet. Nor is it the power of the platforms and what to do about them which, I submit, were susceptible to much more discrete and limited remedies.

I am concerned with a rising tide which is seeking after orthodoxy. I do not think C18 or C11 can be adequately explained without factoring in an illiberal tendency in government and in sectors of society that distrust free expression.

A recent study for the CATO institute showed that 3 in 10 Americans under thirty wanted government video surveillance in the home, and that the link between younger age groups and this desire was strongly corelated. 1

The distributed and anarchic features of the Internet are proving intolerable to many. It would be difficult to say which factor threatens the Internet more: established commercial interests facing oblivion or the intolerant and anxious spirit of the age.

The American social scientist Jonathan Haidt has researched this issue. A generation of young people have been protected from all harm and risk in the material world but exposed to contention and turmoil in the digital. They have come to believe that debate is wrong, as debate implies doubt, and doubt produces anxiety. This has led to a demand that people be protected from feeling “unsafe”. Many people have come to expect that the triumph of justice is impeded, but will not be prevented, by those of differing opinions or beliefs. If governments could just lean hard enough on the dissenting minorities, then the progress of society can be assured. Even if, as I believe, that these are not dissenting minorities, but
dissenting majorities.

The concerns of anxious safety seekers would be of no effect without government backing. For their own reasons, and in a separate stream of causation, the proponents of more government controls over thoughts and expressions have arrived at the view that the society we live in is fundamentally illegitimate.

The attack on the liberal political order is broad and deep and proceeds on several fronts. The constitutional order, with its origins in European colonization of the American continent, is seen to be illegitimate. Worse, it is showing every sign of success. Where it ends, or whether it ends, is unclear, but do not be in doubt: its goal is the delegitimation of pre-existing Canadian society which was, and
remains, a liberal one.

By liberal I mean a society concerned with and founded on the rights of individuals. In principle the liberal order did not privilege one group or groups over others. It sought equality of opportunity and gradually recognized broader and broader classes of people for recognition and protections. It recognized groups but not group rights. It was concerned with the quality of education but not with the establishment of orthodoxy.

A liberal society assumes the legitimacy of actual debate. It is confident of its premises. It tolerates not knowing the truth but actively seeks after it by processes of inquiry, which may well be combative in nature but which rest on the pillar of doubt, or skeptical inquiry if you prefer. A liberal society is extremely cautious about the dangers of dogmatic certainty.

Doubt is the enemy of orthodoxy. Seekers after certainty resist free discussion. Hence they seek to control “the narrative”.

The measures I see being taken in bills like C11 and C18, and others to come, seek the institutionalization of orthodoxy, which is Greek for right opinion. The measures proposed and approved by government assume that the truth cannot and must not be doubted, that a particular kind of knowledge (theirs) is certain, that differing opinions are a form of subversion, and that not merely are opinions to be combatted, but that measures ought to be taken to silence by any means available the expression of unorthodox views (misinformation, false narratives).

If this trend continues, we shall soon be back to the Spain and Portugal of the 17 th century. The Office of Inquisition will be renamed to something akin to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission but some institution will be charged with maintaining truth by repression of speakers of untruth. I assure you that the kindly inquisitors 2 under whatever their new name will have no doubts that they are doing what is

It will help if the silencing is done by self censorship, but if that fails, other means are at hand. Targeting speakers is the most effective way of targeting speech. Hence the decision made to expand the extent of the Broadcasting Act to cover user generated content, even if only in principle, and not yet implemented, signals the direction in which Canadian society is heading.

The idea that these laws could have been improved by better “policy conversations” – I use that term in air quotes – fails to engage the strength of the social forces that are ranged against freedom of speech. These laws, incoherently drafted as they are, emerge from profound intolerance for the ideas of the
Enlightenment. Others besides the ISCC, such as Michael Geist and Peter Menzies, have written about the brutal processes that have marked the passage of these bills. The government was not remotely interested in conversing about its assumptions, methods or goals.

My experience in government has convinced me that every cubic millimeter of jurisdiction will eventually be occupied, no matter how absurd it may seem at the time the legislation is written. People will follow the inner logic of the statutes they are assigned to administer, eventually.

Once the decision was made that the totality of media policy was reducible to concerns for Canadian content, the conclusions have flowed like a river in flood. All video content must be subject to regulation. Exemptions will be temporary To conclude, governments in the western world are seeking greater control of the Internet. In Canada a comprehensive scheme of governmental control was at hand, called “broadcasting”. We should not assume that the efforts to control the Internet – including the former entity called the press – were caused by obsolescent industries or those privileged by the existing regime, though they helped. Nor should we assume that these measures came out of the minds of bureaucrats in
Heritage Department, to the exclusion of deeper influences.

What lends force to the flood of illiberal intolerance is the belief, strongly held, that people ought to live in a world of safety, as felt by the most hypersensitive. The drive to emotional safetyism is powerful. Its end goal is orthodoxy. This is how I explain why things like C11 and C18, and the measures of control that will
follow, have not aroused a revolt, and in fact may be approved of by many.

The Internet Society, Canada Chapter, will continue its efforts to maintain a free and affordable Internet. But we must acknowledge that those who seek after enforced orthodoxy are in the ascendant. For the time being.

My thanks to you all for your patient attention and for your efforts on behalf of the Society. We have much yet to do.

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