The Passing Show

The ‘attack on freedom of speech:’ Is it real – or not?

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

I know people, in this country of ours, Canada, who won’t put a Conservative election sign on their lawn because they’re afraid all their Liberal or NDP neighbours will stop talking to them.

That’s bad enough. But what’s really scary is that there are people reading this right now who are either thinking, or saying, “What’s wrong with that? If they’re that stupid to vote Conservative, they should keep it to themselves.”

But what we’re discussing here is something that we should all consider sacred: freedom of speech and freedom of expression (lawn signs). It was a biographer of Voltaire (real name Francois-Marie Arouet, a proponent of freedom of speech, religion and the separation of church and state) who wrote, as an example of his thinking: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Not that many people these days seem to agree with what Voltaire allegedly said back in the 1700s.  Twitter (quickly followed by all the other social media platforms) took down President Donald Trump’s account in recent days and this was met with a surprisingly large vote of approval. Twitter, Facebook and the rest are all privately owned businesses and the owner or owners have every right to do what they did. But because these platforms are monopolies, apparently working in cahoots, a decision to ban Trump (or anyone else, for that matter) amounts to censorship and an attack on freedom of speech.

And history shows that it never stops at one. They can ban Trump but then they will have to ban another and then, one day, and you can make book on this, they will ban you, or people who think like you. George Orwell, in his book 1984, wrote about the Ministry of Truth and that appears to be happening south of the border and – yikes – could soon be reality in Canada. And if you’re not paying attention, you will wake up one day and find that it’s reality.

As I have said in my writings, and in conversation with friends, I ultimately don’t really care what goes on in another country (in this case, the United States, a country that attracts far too much attention from our Canadian media, which I find unhealthy). But when what happens there has a direct, negative effect on what happens here, it gets me concerned.

Our federal government is preparing new regulations for social media platforms that will force them to remove, within 24 hours, anything that would be considered violent, hurtful or detrimental to any minority group in Canada and/or the country’s commitment to diversity in just about everything. If Google, or Facebook, et al, don’t adhere to these regulations, they will be slapped with serious financial penalties. Which means, you can bet, they will be overzealous in their attempts to stay on the good side of the law.

Now, we already have hate laws and libel and slander laws. I don’t think we need another level of regulation that will essentially do the same thing. So I suspect something else is at play and this is where things get, for want of a better word, interesting.

Who will decide what is acceptable to be published on social media? Will it be the owners and/or managers? They will have people on staff reading everything that’s published, that’s for sure. And those folks will be ultra-conservative in their approach because they will not want the  president of the company to open his or her mail one day to find out the firm is being fined $25,000 for something that showed up on the platform under their watch.

And it’s a given that the government that comes up with these new regulations is also going to have people reading those platforms (will Ottawa call the new department the Ministry of Truth?) and will they be flagging posts that are deemed not necessarily hateful or spiteful but that oppose government policy?

Once this sort of thing starts, there will be no turning back. If some other political party happens to win an election, you can bet they will leave this new ministry alone. After all, they will then get to control the messaging.

In the end, the losers are going to be you and me.

Here’s why: I write a lot about auto racing. I am very disappointed that Formula One is planning to race this season in Saudi Arabia, a country not particularly known for its human rights record. There have been state-sanctioned murders (Jamal Khashoggi), kidnappings, women arrested and then sexually assaulted while in captivity, and so-on, including the dispatching of hit men to Canada to eliminate a critic – they failed.

I have written about this extensively and I have Tweeted about it.

But Canada – the federal government, as well as at least one provincial government – likes Saudi Arabia. We do tons of business with the Saudis. Billions of dollars of business. A member of the federal Cabinet grew up in Saudi Arabia and has reportedly spoken out in Cabinet meetings about the importance of trade with that country.

So would my Tweets about Saudi Arabia pass mustard? You have to wonder.

When I started this column, I focused on Trump. I have friends who hate him and are delighted with what has happened to him. They love what Twitter (followed by the others) did to him. But maybe they missed this: Jack Patrick Dorsey, who is the CEO, said Thursday that “there will be others.”

Remember what I said back at the start about it never stopping at one? And our government is dabbling with its own ideas of what I would call censorship.

What’s happening everywhere, but particularly here, is not good. Not very good at all.

norrismcdonald@rogers.com