The federal government is introducing its long-awaited online harms legislation today, after its last attempt to tackle online hate died when the 2021 federal election was called.

The text of the legislation has not yet been made available, but its 46-word title indicates that it will involve changes to the Criminal Code, the Canadian Human Rights Act and laws that make reporting online child pornography mandatory.  

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week the bill is designed to protect children from being subjected to “hatred, to violence, to being bullied and seeing and being affected by terrible things online.”

What happened to the 2021 legislation?

In June of 2023, the federal government introduced Bill C-36, legislation meant to crack down on hate propaganda, hate crimes and hate speech.

David Lametti, then the minister of justice, said the legislation was “designed to target the most egregious and clear forms of hate speech that can lead to discrimination and violence.”

Bill C-36 would have allowed individuals or groups to file hate speech complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. It also included measures aimed at preventing abuse of the process.

Bill C-36 was roundly criticized by privacy experts and civil liberties groups who said its requirement that online platforms remove content flagged as harmful within 24 hours would encourage companies to take an overly cautious approach, resulting in suppression of free speech.

Emily Laidlaw, a law professor at the University of Calgary who was a co-chair of the government’s advisory group on the legislation, said she hopes the legislation will abandon the take-down deadline and approach.

“It is incredibly difficult to assess content at the margins when it comes to issues of terrorist propaganda and hate propaganda,” she told CBC News. “That regime in 2021 would have incentivized over-removal of anything that had just even the whiff of political controversy.”

What happened after Bill C-36? 

When the 2021 federal election was called, C-36 died without ever having gone to committee for debate. The Liberal election platform papered over that loss with a pledge to introduce new online harms legislation within the first 100 days of being re-elected. 

Instead of meeting that self-imposed deadline, the Liberal government waited until March of 2022 to announce that it had created an expert advisory group “as the next step in developing legislation to address harmful online content.”

The group’s mandate was “to provide advice on a legislative and regulatory framework that best addresses harmful content online.”

By the end of 2023, the government still had not met its 2021 promise to introduce new legislation and the members of the advisory board were growing frustrated.

In November, they published an open letter urging the government to introduce its new bill so its merits could be debated in Parliament.

In the letter, the advisory group and other experts warned that “the lack of governance has put Canadian children at greater risk online than their counterparts in much of the democratic world.”

What do the experts want to see in the bill?

According to the open letter, members of the advisory board want the legislation to contain five key elements:

  • A requirement that digital platforms conduct risk assessments on products used by Canadians and “act responsibly, including by upholding fundamental rights” to protect users from harm.
  • A special duty to protect children from harm.
  • A regulator for online harm with the power to investigate and audit digital platforms, impose fines and prescribe corrective measures.
  • A provision requiring “an avenue to audit and verify” that digital platforms are meeting their obligations under the act by sharing data with researchers.
  • An online forum for victims affected by platforms’ content moderation practices. 

Owen Charters, president and CEO of BGC Canada (formerly Boys & Girls Clubs of Canada), said the new bill must focus on children and accountability.

“Predominantly, what we see is real harms and issues happening for young people,” Charters told CBC News. “It’s a bill that really needs to take that into account and really hold companies accountable for what they have for a long time said is not their responsibility.”

Charters said that if this new legislation does not require reported content to be taken down within 24 hours, it should still require that companies identify harmful content and take it down when they can.

What provisions will the new bill contain?

We won’t know the full details until the bill is introduced in the House of Commons this week. CBC News reported on Monday that the bill will include a new regulator, separate from the CRTC, to hold tech giants accountable for harmful content.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office wouldn’t give details about the bill to CBC News but did say it will focus on protecting children.

Laidlaw said the expectation is that the government will rely less on companies taking down hateful content swiftly and move on preventing it from getting there in the first place.

“The major point that the entire panel agreed on was that the legislation should be built around the idea of a duty to act responsibly … that they sort of have to mitigate the risks of harm,” she said.

What is the opposition saying about the bill?

Last week, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Trudeau shouldn’t be deciding what constitutes hate speech online and predicted the legislation would be an “attack on freedom of expression.”

“What does Justin Trudeau mean when he says the words ‘hate speech’? He means the speech he hates,” Poilievre said. “You can assume he will ban all of that.”

Poilievre also framed his opposition to the forthcoming legislation in deeply personal terms, saying Trudeau is not the leader to legislate on this issue.

WATCH | Online harms bill sparks personal attacks from opposition:

Online harms bill sparks personal attacks from opposition

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is taking aim at the prime minister and the government’s plan to fight online hate. Poilievre launched a very personal attack against his political rival, pointing to his past use of blackface. Justin Trudeau fought back, arguing Poilievre’s only plan is to sow division.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Wednesday his party supports a narrowly focused online harms bill that protects kids.

“I’m focused on saving kids’ lives, keeping them safe and protecting them,” Singh said. “That’s my sole concern. I don’t see who could oppose such a thing.”

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