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Online harms bill coming as soon as next week, will focus on safety: Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising that his government’s upcoming bill to legislate against online harms will focus on making the internet safer for minors, while not censoring it for the rest of Canadians.

Speaking in Edmonton, Trudeau announced the Liberals will table the long-promised legislation as soon as next week, adding in French that it could come in several weeks.

Members of Parliament are currently on a break week. The House of Commons is scheduled to resume on Monday for one week, then not again until mid-March.

Trudeau characterized the legislation as having been difficult to write because of the need to strike the right balance between protecting Canadians’ freedom of expression and instituting measures to better protect children.

He vowed the bill would be “very specifically focused on protecting kids and not on censoring the internet.”

“Kids are vulnerable online to hatred, to violence, to being bullied, to seeing and being affected by terrible things online,” said Trudeau.

“We need to do a better job as a society of protecting our kids online the way we protect them in schoolyards, in our communities, in our homes across the country.”

Trudeau first promised the measure during the 2019 federal election campaign, but a bill targeting online hate speech died on the order paper when he triggered an early election in 2021.

He then promised to retable the bill within the first 100 days of his new mandate, but failed to do so.

Trudeau’s government presented a proposal that year outlining the approach it planned to take to legislate against five categories of online harms: content that incited violence, the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, child exploitation, hate speech and terrorist content.

Many critics voiced concern that the range of content was too diverse and could create problems when it came to determining what fell into each category.

Organizations like the National Council of Canadian Muslims also expressed worries that efforts to target terrorism-related online content could disproportionately affect their members.

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Privacy experts and civil liberties groups also roundly criticized the earlier proposal for giving online platforms just 24 hours to remove content flagged as harmful.

Such a threshold would have risked encouraging companies to take an overly cautious approach, removing acceptable material pre-emptively for fear of running afoul of the rules, they warned.

The government ultimately went back to the drawing board and assembled a new group of cybersecurity, online safety and other experts to advise it on how best to proceed.

The upcoming legislation is now expected to pave the way for a new ombudsperson to field public concerns about online content, as well as a new regulatory role that would oversee the conduct of internet platforms.

The new positions would be established as a part of the forthcoming bill, which the government had hoped to unveil by April, said one senior official with knowledge of the plan.

“It’s very nearly ready to go,” said the source, who has seen a draft of the legislation. The source spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss details that have yet to be made public.

The source said the bill proposes “two very narrow instances of a takedown” of online material: images of child sexual abuse and the non-consensual sharing of images.

Online safety and technology experts have for months been pressuring the governing Liberals to present a plan, warning that Canadian children are currently less protected than kids living in the United Kingdom, the European Union and Australia, where such laws already exist.

Jewish advocacy groups have also called for the legislation amid a spike in antisemitic and other hateful rhetoric online in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.

And high-profile cases of sextortion, including the death of a 12-year-old B.C. boy who took his own life last year after falling prey to an online sextortion scheme, have prompted renewed urgency from advocates, as well as the federal New Democrats.

Justice Minister Arif Virani would be the one to introduce the new bill after the file was moved to his desk from Canadian Heritage, which has shepherded through other media bills.

Virani said in a recent speech to the Canadian Bar Association he was confident the government could legislate measures to promote an online world where “users can express themselves without feeling threatened or fuelling hate.”

“It also means requiring online services to address and mitigate the risk of such harmful content on their platforms, as well as to give users tools and resources to report harmful content and seek help,” he said.

The government’s latest panel of experts on the matter highlighted a need to establish a regulatory role that would hold online platforms accountable for the content they host and impose penalties on services that fail to do so.

The proposed regulator would have a mandate to ensure online giants comply with federal law, the official said.

The source said the role of the new ombudsperson would be to field concerns from ordinary Canadians who encounter problematic material or scenarios online.

Sam Andrey, managing director of a think tank at Toronto Metropolitan University that tracks online harms in Canada, said in a recent interview that such an official could help guide Canadians on how to reach social-media giants.

“What frustrates people about the platforms is you put your complaint into this (artificial intelligence) chat box and you have no idea if anybody has ever looked at it.”

Andrey added it would be wise for the government to focus its legislation on material that is already illegal and ensure that platforms address them.

“Where things are more risky is where we’re going to try to use this vehicle of … online safety to tackle things that are not illegal, but that are distasteful or create some harm.”

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has already signalled his concerns about the idea of a new regulator and questioned who the government would appoint.

He told reporters on Wednesday that he plans to oppose the upcoming bill, calling it Trudeau’s “latest attack on freedom of expression” and adding the prime minister cannot distinguish between hate speech and “speech he hates.”


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