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Advisory panel calls for Liberals’ online hate law to cover Airbnb, video games

Some suggest bringing private online conversations ‘under the scope of the legislative framework’

An expert panel tasked with helping to shape a federal bill to curb online hate suggests it cover Airbnb, the vacation rental booking site, as well as video games and even private communications online.

The advisory panel believes a future online hate law should have a broad scope covering not just Twitter and Facebook but smaller online platforms, including crowdfunding apps, according to reports of their discussions posted online.

Many experts on the panel also supported bringing private online conversations “under the scope of the legislative framework.”

The Liberal government has said it wants to bring in an online hate bill so that harmful content, such as racist and antisemitic abuse online, is swiftly removed by platforms.

Earlier this year, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez appointed the expert advisory group on online safety to provide counsel on a framework for such a law.

In discussion papers for the group, the Heritage Department indicated it is not inclined to regulate services such as Uber, Airbnb and Peloton. The department suggested they be “excluded … as their primary purpose is not to enable communication between persons per se, but to arrange transportation, or rent accommodations, or participate in fitness classes.”

Many experts on the panel suggested a wider reach, however, and wanted to “incorporate all entities that communicate online.” Some said there is “justification to look more widely” including “some interactive services like Airbnb and gaming platforms,” records of their meetings show.

A few expert advisers added that “it would be hard to assert generalized obligations to act responsibly on some platforms (e.g., social media companies) but not others who operate on the same level of the tech stack (e.g., Airbnb, video-gaming platforms).”

The report of their meetings said some panel members thought “a broad definition would help address evolving/emerging technologies to help future-proof the legislation.”

It said members “highlighted that a lot of times a high level of harmful content, such as terrorist content or child pornography are shared in private communications instead of on public forums — and that excluding these types of communications would leave a lot of harmful content on the table.”

Airbnb, based in San Francisco, said communications on its platform are between people booking lodgings and landlords, such as asking questions about whether dogs are allowed.

It said it has an extensive and strict anti-discrimination policy and delists people who do not adhere to it, as well as those linked to extremist groups.

A spokesman for Airbnb said the site has banned the accounts of dozens of users with links to white nationalist groups, including those identified as members of Iron March, a neo-Nazi forum, following disclosure of the forum’s membership.

“Discrimination of any kind — including bias, prejudice and racism — have no place on our platform or in our community in Canada and around the world, and we have strong policies in place on these issues that align with our inclusive values,” said Nathan Rotman, of Airbnb Canada.

“According to the government, this bill is meant to regulate social media platforms, not platforms like Airbnb.”

In the United States, Harvard Business School researchers exploring racial discrimination at Airbnb found that applications from guests with distinctly African-American names were about 16 per cent less likely to be accepted than guests with distinctly white names.

Bernie Farber, who is chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and a member of the 12-person panel, said Airbnb should fall within the scope of the regulations aimed at curbing online hate, because discussions take place on its platform.

The government also asked its advisory panel to consider how deep the law should go.

“Should top layer interactive services that are not social media platforms — like, video-gaming platforms and streamers, or crowdfunding platforms — also be included?” said government papers giving topics for their deliberations.

Some panel members said a broader scope would include entities that are successful in the recruitment of violent extremists who adapt quickly “and have been moving to video game services, file sharing sites, and live audio applications.”

Laura Scaffidi, a spokeswoman for Rodriguez, said “the expert advisory group on online safety is mandated to provide the government with advice on how to address harmful content online” and noted the 12 people on the panel have a “broad range” of views and experience.

“We look forward to the group’s continued work and final summary,” she added.

“We are going to take the time we need to get this right.”

—Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press

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