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Ottawa poised to table bill on online harms

Photo: Sean Kilpatrick The Canadian Press Justice Minister Arif Virani is expected to introduce a new bill seeking to strike a balance between providing protections to Canadians and respecting the right to free expression.

Stephanie Taylor – The Canadian Press in Ottawa

February 21, 2024

  • Canada

The federal government's plan to protect Canadians from harm online could include appointing a new ombudsman to address their concerns and creating a regulator to oversee the conduct of platforms on the web.

The new positions would be created under legislation the government hopes to announce by April, according to a senior official familiar with the preparation of the plan. “It’s almost ready,” said this source, who was aware of a draft law but spoke anonymously.

Online security and technology experts are pressuring the ruling Liberal government to introduce long-promised legislation aimed at protecting Canadians, especially those under minors, from online harm. These experts point out that Canadian children are currently less well protected than those living in the United Kingdom, the European Union and Australia, where such laws exist.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first promised this measure during the 2019 election campaign, but a bill targeting online hate speech died when it called an election anticipated in 2021.

It is the current Minister of Justice, Arif Virani, who would present the new bill which would seek to establish a fair balance between offering protections to Canadians and respecting the right to freedom of expression.

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Privacy experts and civil liberties groups sharply criticized the government's 2021 proposal, which included a requirement giving online platforms just 24 hours to remove content marked as harmful. Such a threshold would have risked encouraging companies to take an overly cautious approach, preemptively removing acceptable elements for fear of breaking the rules, they warned.

Organizations like the National Council of Canadian Muslims have also expressed concerns that efforts to target online content related to terrorism, one of the bill's stated goals according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, could have a disproportionate impact on the Muslim community.

The government finally went back to the drawing board and assembled a new group of experts to advise it on how best to proceed. The recommendations included establishing a regulatory role that would hold online platforms accountable for the content they host and impose sanctions on services that fail to do so. The proposed regulator would have a mandate to ensure that web giants comply with federal law, said the official, who spoke anonymously.

The government also plans to appoint a new ombudsman whose task would be to address the concerns of ordinary Canadians who encounter problematic content or scenarios online.

In a recent speech to the Canadian Bar Association, Minister Virani expressed confidence in his government's ability to legislate to promote an online world where, he said, “users can express themselves without feeling threatened or fueling hatred.”

“This also means requiring online services to address and mitigate the risk of such harmful content on their platforms. They must also provide users with tools and resources to report harmful content and seek help,” added the Minister of Justice.

Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre has previously expressed concerns about the idea of ​​a new regulatory body, as he believes it would raise questions about who the government would appoint to fulfill such a role. He accused liberals of fostering censorship through previous laws aimed at regulating social media giants.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116