Newly released documents show that a federal government department asked Facebook and Twitter to delete a newspaper article that it felt contained errors — but both social media giants denied the request.
The request to remove social-media posts that linked to an unspecified Toronto Sun article came from a director of communications on Sept. 27, 2021, according to information prepared by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
Documents say that staff at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada — which reports to Parliament through the immigration minister but is otherwise an independent body — believed the article contained “serious errors of fact risking [and] undermining public confidence in the independence of the board as well as the integrity of the refugee determination system.”
The board did not respond to questions from The Canadian Press.
The social media companies ultimately denied the request because the article wasn’t their original content.
The Toronto Sun did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Paul Knox, a professor emeritus at Toronto Metropolitan University’s school of journalism, said governments have no business telling anybody what can be published where.
The government was “totally out of their lane on this one” and needs to apologize, he said.
“You can’t only have freedom of the press for people you approve of and people you consider to be right,” said Knox, who also sits on the Canadian issues committee for the Canadian Journalists For Free Expression, an organization that defends the rights of journalists.
He said that while publications can be held accountable for being wrong, that doesn’t entitle anyone to demand that something be removed from a platform.
“And the last people on Earth that would be justified in doing that would be entities of a government,” he said.
The Opposition Conservatives said Tuesday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government “cannot be trusted” to protect Canadians’ right to free expression.
“No government should be able to demand that news be erased from history simply because they do not like the facts,” Conservative MP Rachael Thomas said in a statement. “It is extremely concerning that the Trudeau government has sought to censor the free press through secret requests to big tech companies.”
Companies did remove some content
Documents tabled in Parliament detail 214 examples of Ottawa asking for social media content to be removed between January 2020 and February 2023. Companies took down posts about half the time for reasons such as impersonation or copyright violations.
The government documents came in response to a written question from Conservative MP Dean Allison.
In another case, the Canada Revenue Agency requested that private messages be removed from Facebook Messenger after employees shared taxpayer information on the platform.
The agency said an administrator deleted the chat on June 7, 2022, but it was unclear whether Facebook deleted the messages from its servers.
“The CRA disciplined the employees involved, up to, and including, termination of employment,” the documents say, adding the affected taxpayers were notified and offered credit protection services. Employees were also retrained on unauthorized access and social media.
In a third case, Meta, which owns Facebook, granted a government request to delete an account that was impersonating former RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki and sending people fake messages.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and LinkedIn all complied with various requests that infringed on copyright or company policies.
Companies refused to remove some content
But social media companies often kept up posts that the government and its departments believed were offensive.
Both Google and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, publish public reports on how often different levels of government request changes to remove posts.
Google’s reporting shows that since since 2011, it has received 1,347 requests from Canadian government entities — municipal, provincial or federal — to remove posts.
The most recent data show that between January 2022 and June 2022, Google, which also owns YouTube, removed 73 posts — mostly because of defamation, privacy and security concerns, adult content or bullying and harassment.
Meta said it restricted access to content following 2,859 requests from all levels of Canadian government between January 2022 to June 2022 for a range of reasons.
In one example, the company said it restricted access to two posts that responded to Health Canada consumer policy reports on unsafe health practices.