Politics

Federal government open to new law to fight pandemic misinformation

The federal government is considering introducing legislation to make it an offence to knowingly spread misinformation that could harm people, says Privy Council President Dominic LeBlanc. He told CBC News he is interested in British MP Damian Collins's call for laws to punish those responsible for spreading dangerous misinformation online about the COVID-19 pandemic.

It's one of several measures the government is considering to counter fake news about the virus online

Privy Council President Dominic LeBlanc's cabinet mandate letter gave him responsibility for fighting online disinformation. (Jessica Rubinger/CBC News)

The federal government is considering introducing legislation to make it an offence to knowingly spread misinformation that could harm people, says Privy Council President Dominic LeBlanc.

LeBlanc told CBC News he is interested in British MP Damian Collins's call for laws to punish those responsible for spreading dangerous misinformation online about the COVID-19 pandemic.

LeBlanc said he has discussed the matter already with other cabinet ministers, including Justice Minister David Lametti. If the government decides to follow through, he said, it could take a while to draft legislation.

"Legislatures and Parliaments are meeting scarcely because of the current context of the pandemic, so it's not a quick solution, but it's certainly something that we would be open [to] as a government," said LeBlanc.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said he would support legislation to fight online misinformation.

'Cranks ... creating havoc'

"Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and it is about protecting the public," he said.

"This is not a question of freedom of speech. This is a question of people who are actually actively working to spread disinformation, whether it's through troll bot farms, whether [it's] state operators or whether it's really conspiracy theorist cranks who seem to get their kicks out of creating havoc."

Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer criticized the idea of using legislation to curb misinformation.

"We're concerned when this government starts talking about free speech issues," Scheer told reporters at a news conference Thursday. "They've got a terrible history over the past few years of proposing ideas that would infringe upon free speech."

"Any time this government starts talking about regulating what people can say and not say, we start off the conversation with a great deal of healthy skepticism," Scheer added, pointing out that the government has changed its pandemic messaging on travel restrictions and the use of masks.

The comments come as governments around the world struggle to curb dangerous misinformation and disinformation circulating about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Collins, who chaired an international committee on big data, privacy and democracy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, said at the outset of the pandemic that much of the misinformation and disinformation in circulation was promoting fake cures for COVID-19 or offering tips on how to avoid catching it.

British MP Damian Collins is calling for new laws to make it an offence to knowingly spread misinformation that can harm people. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

More recently, said Collins, the misinformation has shifted to conspiracy theories about what triggered the pandemic — claims that it was cooked up in a lab, for example. A conspiracy theory claiming the disease is caused by 5G wireless signals prompted attacks on wireless towers in the U.K.

The British government has set up a rapid response team to correct false information circulating online. Collins has launched a fact-checking site called Infotagion, along with Angus and Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith, among others.

'Maliciously' spreading lies

Collins is calling for legislation to combat online disinformation, perhaps modelled on Germany's laws governing online hate speech or France's legislation countering disinformation during election campaigns.

"It's such a serious public emergency that I think for someone to knowingly, willingly and at scale and maliciously spread this content should be an offence," he said.

"And equally for the tech companies, if it is highlighted to [them] that someone is doing this and they don't act against them doing it, then it should be an offence for them to have failed to act — they would have failed in their duty of care."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government set up an elaborate system to watch out for attempts to disrupt last year's federal election through disinformation, including a committee that brought together several departments and a special group chaired by the clerk of the Privy Council to sound the alarm.

Opportunistic criminals

The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) has been monitoring what's happening online during the pandemic, and has helped to remove fake sites set up by cybercriminals.

"Opportunistic cyber threat actors are attempting to take advantage of Canadians' heightened levels of concern and legitimate fears around COVID-19," said CSE spokesperson Ryan Foreman. "They are trying to spread misinformation and scam Canadians out of their money or private data.

"COVID-19 has presented cybercriminals and fraudsters with an effective lure to encourage victims to visit fake web sites, open email attachments and click on text message links. These emails typically impersonate health organizations, and can even pretend to be from the government of Canada."

Health Canada has the lead on monitoring for misinformation. For example, it is sending compliance letters to companies it finds making false or questionable claims about COVID-19.

"It's really the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada that have been, amongst other things, identifying as best as possible some of the more flagrant examples of misinformation, disinformation," said LeBlanc.

Last week, the Canadian Heritage department announced $3 million in grants to eight groups across the country to combat "false and misleading COVID-19 information."

LeBlanc admits that while the government's previous work leading up to the election made Canadians more aware of online misinformation and disinformation, the structures that it set up were designed with an election campaign in mind.

"I think governments around the world were caught, to some extent, by surprise in terms of the rapidity by which the pandemic spread," LeBlanc said, adding that the online misinformation emerged as quickly as the pandemic itself.

"So governments in Canada, and I say governments plural ... were forced to stand up very quickly a bunch of measures. I think we've done, comparatively, in Canada very well."

Angus said the speed of COVID-19's spread left the government without a game plan. Now, he said, it should set up a team to fight misinformation about the virus.

"I think it would be reasonable to enact with the RCMP, with our security officials and some public officials, a team to monitor disinformation and have the power to shut it down so it does not interfere with the efforts of our frontline medical workers," said Angus.

"We need to be taking all measures right now because we don't know how long we're going to be in this crisis."

With files from Katie Nicholson and Jason Ho.

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca

About the Author

Elizabeth Thompson

Senior Reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.

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