Cross Country Checkup

As Facebook expands its ban on hate speech, some celebrate — and others worry

While some see Facebook's ban of far-right political commentator Faith Goldy and several Canadian groups promoting white nationalism as encouraging, others, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, warn there's a fine line between free expression and hate speech.

What is considered hateful lies in the 'eye of the beholder,' says civil liberties advocate Cara Zwibel

Facebook announced on Monday it banned far-right political commentator Faith Goldy and several groups promoting white nationalism. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

In the Wild West of social media, the block button has become a powerful tool for Mike Morrison.

The Calgary-based blogger and activist is an avid Twitter user commenting on provincial politics and is no stranger to anti-LGBTQ comments floating around the network.

While he says comments — like one in reply to a recent LGBTQ-focused voting event claiming that drag queens infected city hall with AIDS — can roll off his back, he worries about LGBTQ youth who could be hurt by such statements.

"Because I'm a grown-up, I can decipher what is … trolling," he told Cross Country Checkup.

"A 12-year-old in rural Canada might not know that when someone says that drag queens are going to bring AIDS into city hall that that person is incorrect, not them."

Calgary blogger Mike Morrison, left, with his boyfriend Richard Einarson at a Calgary Pride Parade. (Submitted by Mike Morrison)

That's why Morrison supports the announcement by Facebook that they will ban certain types of hate speech and those who promote it.

On Monday, the social media giant announced far-right political commentator Faith Goldy and several groups promoting white nationalism, including the Soldiers of Odin, were no longer welcome on the website — a decision lauded by the federal government.

"There is no place in Canada for these kinds of divisive societal statements," said Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould. "We are pleased that Facebook has made this decision and would hope that other platforms would look to Facebook's actions."

While some celebrate the move and even encourage government intervention, others believe there's a fine line between regulation and censorship.

"There is a difference between the state restricting what you can say and do, and a private company saying if you want to say these things you can't use our platform to say them," said Cara Zwibel, a director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Slippery slope

For Zwibel, there are several issues to consider when it comes to banning hate speech online. On one hand, what is hateful lies in the "eye of the beholder," she says.

"It's hard to know what the criteria are that are being used to make these decisions about what content is banned," she said.

We have no problem whatsoever making some industrial company clean up the waste it spews into a river ... Is this any different?- Gil Zvulony, internet and defamation lawyer

If a company is legally liable when hate speech is posted, Zwibel worries it could result in the removal of acceptable, but sensitive, content out of an abundance of caution.

More concerning is where the line between reasonable commentary and hate speech would be drawn.

Who should be protected is a subjective decision and to put a blanket ban on hateful content could negatively affect marginalized voices, she says.

"That means that people who are facing oppression and marginalization at the hands of a majority are unable to speak out and call attention to that problem."

Not a simple task

Like Morrison, Toronto-based internet and defamation lawyer Gil Zvulony sees Facebook's moves as a positive step.

"I am in favour of limiting certain types of speech in our society," he told Checkup.

"When you look at the law generally, we have no problem limiting someone's right to reproduce a logo or some copyrighted image."

Following shootings in two New Zealand mosques, Facebook announced last month it would ban hate speech relating to white nationalism and white separatism. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

But Zvulony cautions that banning hate speech isn't as simple as it might seem. The jurisdiction where a post originates could determine how it's handled legally.

While a Canadian who posts hate speech could be prosecuted in this country, Zvulony says, the social media network that hosts it could get off scot-free if their servers are located elsewhere.

Still, the lawyer would like to see changes.

"It became really, really easy for people's lives to really be destroyed and for elections to be swayed and for all sorts of phobias to take root," he said.

"We have no problem whatsoever making some industrial company clean up the waste it spews into a river ... Is this any different?"

With files from Sheyfali Saujani

About the Author

Jason Vermes

Digital Associate Producer

Jason Vermes is an award-winning digital and radio producer for CBC Radio’s Day 6 and Cross Country Checkup. He has previously worked on As It Happens, The Current and Spark, and reported on accessibility & disability for Accessible Media Inc. You can contact him by email: jason.vermes@cbc.ca.

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