Canada’s Online Harms Bill Coming Next Week

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that his government’s upcoming bill that will enact laws against online harms will focus on making the internet safer for minors, but will not censor it for the rest of Canadians.

Speaking in Edmonton, Trudeau announced the supporters will table the long-promised law enactment as soon as next week.

Trudeau referred to the legislation as a difficult one to write because of the need to strike a balance between protecting Canadians’ freedom of expression, and coming up with measures to better protect children. He vowed the bill will 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,” he said

“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.”

The Prime Minister made the first promise of the measure during the 2019 federal election campaign, but in 2021, a bill passed on online hate speech died on the order paper when he triggered an early election. He then promised to table it again within the first 100 days of his new mandate, but he did not.

Rather, Trudeau’s government presented a proposal that year outlining their approach, which is to legislate against five categories of online harms namely: content that incites violence, the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, child exploitation, hate speech and terrorist content.

Organisations like the National Council of Canadian Muslims expressed worries that efforts to target terrorism-related online content could affect the organisation’s members disproportionately.

Privacy experts and civil liberty groups also roundly criticised the proposal for giving online platforms only 24 hours to take down content flagged as harmful. They warned that such thresholds would have risked encouraging companies to take an overly cautious approach, removing acceptable material preemptively for fear of getting into conflict with the rules.

Ultimately, the government went back to the drawing board, and assembled a new group of cybersecurity, online safety, and other personnel to advise it on how best to proceed. The upcoming laws are expected to pave the way for a new ombudsman to field public concerns about online content, and also a new regulatory role that will supervise and monitor the conduct of internet platforms.

A senior official who is well acquainted with the plan said the government had hoped to unveil the new bill by April, and the new positions would be established as a part of the bill. “It’s very nearly ready to go,” said the source, who has seen a draft of the legislation.

The senior official who would rather remain annonymous said the bill proposes “two very narrow instances of a takedown” of online content: images of child sexual abuse and the non-consensual sharing of images. For some months now, technology experts have been pressuring the governing Liberals to present a plan, warning that Canadian children are currently less protected than the United Kingdom children, the European Union, and Australia, where these laws already exist.

Amid a spike in antisemitic and other hateful rhetoric online content in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, Jewish advocacy groups have also called for the legislation. High-profile cases of sextortion, including the death of a 12-year-old boy in British Columbia who took his own life last year after falling for an online sextortion scheme, have all prompted a renewed urgency from advocates, and the federal New Democrats.

Arif Virani, the Justice Minister, will introduce the new bill after the file was moved to his desk from Canadian Heritage.

In a recent speech to the Canadian Bar Association, Virani said he was confident the government can put measures in place 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 latest panel of professionals presiding over the matter highlighted a need to establish a regulatory role which aim will be to hold online platforms accountable for the content they post, and impose penalties on those that fail to do so.

The proposed regulator will have the mandate of ensuring online giants comply with federal law, the official said; adding that the role of the new ombudsman would be to report concerns from ordinary Canadians who encounter problematic material or scenarios online.

The managing director of a think tank at Toronto Metropolitan University that specialises in tracking online harms in Canada, Sam Andrey, 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 said.

He also said that it would be wise for the government to focus on material or content that is already illegal, and ensure the platforms address them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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