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Liberals’ online harms bill not about regulating speech: minister

Canada’s justice minister said he hopes to avoid accusations that the Liberal government is trying to regulate or curb speech with its planned bill to protect people from online harms.

“Where I don’t want this bill to go is down some sort of path where it looks like people are trying to tell you what to think, or how to criticize people,” federal Justice Minister Arif Virani told The Canadian Press in a wide-ranging interview last week.

“That’s absolutely not what we’re talking about.”

The comments come as the government faces mounting pressure to introduce the long-promised legislation following a sharp rise in antisemitism online since the latest Israel-Hamas war began in early October.

Last year, the government sent its initial plans for the bill back to the drawing board in after facing criticism. Virani now says he hopes to bring the final bill forward sometime next year. He is taking over the bill from Canadian Heritage, which shepherded two highly controversial media bills on online streaming and compensation for news media.

The group of experts the government tasked with reworking the bill recently published an open letter saying it was time for the Liberals to bring it forward. They said Canadian children are less protected than kids in countries where similar laws are already in effect.

Among the steps they have called the government to take is to create a regulator to hold online platforms accountable to protect users from online harms, “with the power to investigate and audit platforms, mandate corrective action and impose fines.”

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Virani has remained tight-lipped on whether it would move ahead with that specific proposal. He said the legislation is complicated to develop, and he is hoping to avoid pitfalls regarding free speech that other jurisdictions have seen with similar laws.

The Liberals introduced a bill addressing online hate speech shortly before the 2021 election, but it died on the order paper when Parliament was dissolved.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau then promised to target terrorist content, hate speech and child sex abuse images on the internet with an online harms bill he said he would table within 100 days after the vote, after first promising to do so during the 2019 vote.

The Liberals’ proposal prompted concerns over free expression, including provisions that would have required digital giants platforms to monitor and take down posts on their online platforms. The government then asked the group of experts to give feedback on a different approach that would put more responsibility on platforms to have systems in place to manage harmful content online.

In the interview, Virani did not divulge specifics around what the Liberals will ultimately propose in the bill. But he said Canadians can expect it to target online harms involving children and women, such as the sharing of intimate images without someone’s consent, and interpersonal violence.

“It is definitely also about curbing hatred,” added Virani, who went on to say the Supreme Court of Canada has already provided guidance around what is defined as hatred.

“There’s going to be still a lot of sort of insults and harmful language and offensive language that will continue to exist,” the minister said.

“Those are what a lot of people call awful, but lawful _ but that is lawful.”

He said calling for the extermination of a group or the eradication of a people “crosses a threshold and that is already regulated in the physical space. We’re trying to ensure that there would be a response to that in the online space.”

On Monday, Virani posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that online hate can turn into real-life danger and condemned the “recent wave of hate against the Jewish community.”

Over the weekend, the RCMP announced it had arrested and charged a teen in Ottawa with terrorism-related offences that allegedly targeted Jewish people and warned of a troubling trend in violent extremism among Canadian youth.

Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre, an advocate for free speech, has already begun voicing concerns over the government’s plan to legislate protections against online harms.

He panned the proposal in an interview with True North released Monday,saying the Liberal government “cannot differentiate between hate speech and speech they hate.”

He added: “We have to be very careful about giving any state czar the ability to define what he or she thinks is hate because we might end up being very surprised with their definition.”

Virani told The Canadian Press that his “bailiwick” is the protections around free expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

He says while Canadians are looking for the government to take steps to protect them against online harms, they want a balance to ensure it is “not overly encroaching on basic protections on freedom of expression.”

&copy 2023 The Canadian Press


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