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Les Leyne: Two accounts of the pause of social harms bill

Government introduced a bill that was supposed to smooth the way for the province to sue the social media giants for the damage they are doing to society
B.C. Premier David Eby, seen in Delta on March 18, has said that he expects the online harms bill would pass unanimously. DARRYL DYCK, THE CANADIAN PRESS

Here are two conflicting interpretations of an NDP government move this week for your consideration, with a bonus Biblical reference to add some weight.

They are about the abrupt suspension Tuesday of a bill that was supposed to smooth the way for the province to sue the social media giants for the damage they are doing to society by putting addictive and damaging clickbait ahead of all other concerns for human welfare.

It’s a very appealing narrative, pitched as a David versus Goliath story. In the government’s preferred version, a third-ranked province in a middling country rises up and socks the global giants right between the eyes.

The aptly named premier, David Eby, and Attorney General Niki Sharma slapped the bill down in front of the Goliaths on March 14, making B.C. the first place in the world to do so.

But on Tuesday they abruptly announced it is on “pause” for the time being — because just introducing it was enough to spook the heavyweights, who are now willing to study online safety.

The impression they want left is that it’s a piece of political ju-jitsu, a tactical withdrawal representing a big win, brought on by the giants’ willingness to at least talk about addressing concerns.

Here’s an alternative version. An over-confident David took on the giants with a wild overswing that would have made it easier for his government to successfully sue any company, for anything.

It raised so much alarm that he wound up sling shotting himself into jam with a freaked-out business world and is now backing off, while denying the retreat every step of the way.

It is the sudden change in tone and the chronology that raise the skeptical alternative version.

The March 14 introduction and news conference was full of tough talk about billionaires resisting accountability, wrong-doers causing harm, and Eby and Sharma’s determination to pass a “broad, nimble” bill that takes them on across the board. Vaping, caffeinated energy drinks, cyber-bullying that has prompted young suicides and any addictive products or algorithms that create dependencies were named as targets. Eby said his doctor wife told him she sees a huge rise in eating disorders brought on by extreme dieting fads that get traffic online.

Eby expected the bill would pass unanimously.

“There can’t be any reason why all parties wouldn’t support it,” he said.

He expected that after brief debate, the government lawyers would advance work on identifying targets.

“We’re watching you and we will come for you,” Sharma warned the companies.

It was a vehement, unconditional start of legal action.

But over the next few weeks an uproar developed over the scope of the bill. Business critics right here in B.C, backed by analyses from several law firms, said it could be used to extract damages from any outfit selling anything remotely potentially harmful — red meat, booze, salt, etc.

The bill also broadened the scope of damages to be claimed and stipulated court processes to the government’s advantage. Two dozen groups representing a broad swath of the consumer industry stridently objected.

Then this week Eby issued a statement — a joint statement supported by the “wrong-doers” Meta, TikTok, Snap and X — no less.

They were all “pleased to share” that collaborative work is starting on a B.C. Online Safety Action Table.

“So the province will place Bill 12 on hold …”

Eby made one passing reference to the local criticism: “I know there was some anxiety in the broader business community …”

Maybe the Goliaths took notice of the bill and came running to the table, so the NDP hit pause.

But it’s conceivable that the start of an organized campaign by groups right here at home to fight the bill and create another government over-reach controversy six months away from an election had something to do with it.

Just So You Know: Wednesday’s column about B.C.’s recognition of aboriginal title to Haida Gwaii noted federal minister Gary Anandasangaree was on hand as an invited guest but there was no federal presence at the proceedings.

Provincial officials say he was on the floor of the house for the duration of the event, but could not attend the later news conference.

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