Online hate: The time for action is now

Thank you so much. 

Good evening everyone. It is a pleasure to be here with all of you, on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg people.

I would like to begin by thanking all the organizers and panelists for your engagement in tonight’s event. 

I speak for the entire Canadian Human Rights Commission when I say how happy we are to be included in tonight’s gathering of experts — to be able to bring our human rights perspective to the issue of hate. 

Because for us, hate — and particularly the phenomenon of online hate — is not only an urgent public safety issue for Canada, but a fundamental human rights issue.

Thinking about hate in the context of human rights goes back seventy years.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a response to the unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust — atrocities born from hatred. 

The Declaration united the world in a common understanding: that human rights are universal, and that hate must not be allowed to go unchecked.

Seventy years later, the Declaration has helped shape our Canadian values and our understanding of fundamental freedoms and human rights.

But sometimes, tensions can arise.

For example, there has always been a tension between freedom of expression and the right to live free from discrimination and hate.

This has always been a complex issue. 

Although our Supreme Court has confirmed that some limits to free speech are justifiable in a free and democratic society, things have changed rapidly since these court decisions were rendered — and that is due to the reach of the Internet.

The internet has made this issue even more complex. 

First — the internet has become a public space…

The internet is no longer just a repository of information. It is the new town-square! 

It is now a public space where people gather to interact, to network, to seek advice, to do business, to meet people, to learn, to protest.

So why is it that an expression of hate that is clearly unacceptable in our public spaces, and on our traditional media, is acceptable online?

Where is the accountability? Where are the protections?

How do victims of hate or harassment online access justice?

Those are just some of the key questions we need to consider.

Second: the internet has done for broadcasting what the printing press did for publishing. 
Suddenly, everyone now has the power to be a broadcaster.

On one hand, this a great thing. The “me too” movement is just one example of how the internet is being used for good, for social change.

The internet has redistributed what was once a very limited amount of broadcasting power among everyone. 

The only problem is that the power to be a broadcaster now exists without any sense of responsibility, or checks and balances.

Here in Canada, we access the internet through infrastructure that is already federally regulated.

Yet, the standards we place on federally regulated broadcasters simply do not apply to someone who has thousands of followers on Twitter — even though they use the same platforms and, in some cases, reach the same number of people.

While this freedom of communication is liberating, we must not be naïve about the kind of world in which we now find ourselves. 

With the rise of populism both here in Canada and around the world, more and more people feel emboldened to share and reinforce hateful and harmful views. 

And now, the internet has provided them a convenient tool to do just that.

In fact, over the past twenty-five years, almost all acts of terrorism and mass violence have been preceded by online hate.

As the Prime Minister of New Zealand said last week:

“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist, and what is said is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. 

They are the publisher, not just the postman.”

We are all devastated by the news of the white-supremacist terror attacks at those two mosques in Christchurch.

That terrible day when the news broke, we learned the disturbing details of how the attack was not only motivated by online messages, but was designed to reach the broadest possible audience by livestreaming the violence on social media. 

As we all know too well, Canada is not immune from such acts of violence and hate. 

The attack in New Zealand was a haunting reminder of the deadly shooting at the Mosque in Quebec City, only two years ago.

It is going to take new and bold ideas to address the pervasive and insidious spread of hate and intolerance.  

We need new ways of thinking.

We need to ask new questions.
We need to talk about proactive solutions so that individual messages of hate are addressed before they have a chance to do harm.

And this responsibility should not fall to the individual, especially not to the victim, and it should definitely not fall to any one organization alone.

We all have a responsibility in this fight against hate, to ensure that our public spaces — both virtual and physical — are safe for all.

It’s going to take a concerted effort that spans both the civil and criminal systems, that calls on all political industry leaders, from both the public and private sectors.  

And it’s going to take same degree of innovation and creativity that has made all of this possible, to ensure that hate is not left to fester. 

The technology we need to shut online hate down already exists. 

And events like this give me hope and optimism that the will and the leadership are here to make this a priority.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission is committed to the fight against hate, and to being a part of the broader solution. 

Because online hate, and hate of any kind, is not only an urgent human rights issue for our country, it is an urgent public safety issue. 

The time for concerted and collaborative action is now.

With that, it is now my pleasure to open up tonight’s discussion and turn it over to our moderator and panelists. 

Thank you, merci.