Online Harms Act Won't Ban 'awful But Lawful' Content Online, Says Justice Minister | CBC Radio

The Current

Justice Minister Arif Virani says the Online Harms Act won’t give the federal government the power to determine what content is and isn’t allowed online — particularly when it comes to hateful content.

Critic says revised bill addresses earlier concerns the act would limit freedom of expression

Jason Vermes · CBC Radio

· Posted: Feb 27, 2024 2:20 PM EST | Last Updated: 11 hours ago

Minister of Justice Arif Virani on Monday tabled the government’s new online safety bill, which aims to police content deemed harmful. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The Current23:46Praise and concern for proposed online safety bill

Justice Minister Arif Virani says the Online Harms Act won’t give the federal government the power to determine what is and isn’t appropriate content.

The bill, tabled by the Liberal government Monday, includes an amendment to define “hatred” in Canada’s Criminal Code. That definition, Virani said, does not include insulting or offensive content, but rather recognized hate speech like calling for genocide.

“People insult groups or people or races or religions all of the time. That’s going to continue to be awful but lawful,” Virani told The Current’s Matt Galloway.

“But when you call for the extermination of a people, you’re hitting a hate standard that’s already been entrenched by the courts.”

The bill proposes to police online content across seven categories that it deems as harmful. That includes content used to bully a child or encourages a child to harm themselves.

The categories also include hate speech, content that incites violence or terrorism, content that sexualizes children or victims of sexual violence, and sexual content that is posted without consent. 

WATCH | Online safety bill tabled by Liberals:

Federal government introduces online harms billThe Liberal government has tabled bill C-63, which aims to protect people — especially children — from harmful content online, including sexual exploitation and hate speech, through the creation of a new regulatory body called the Digital Safety Commission and changes to the Criminal Code.

An earlier version of the bill, first introduced in March 2022, has been criticized by the Conservative Party and privacy advocates as being overly broad and potentially damaging to free expression. 

Virani says the latest version addresses those concerns.

“What’s important is people understanding that what is protected at its core, at its highest, is political speech, which is critical to democracy,” he said.

“What isn’t protected is violence and what kids are being subjected to … is violence.”

‘They did listen’: GeistUniversity of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist gave the bill a B-plus grade, despite early concerns about what it would mean for freedom of expression.

“I think that they did listen,” said Geist, who is also Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law. 

“Especially in terms of focusing on this notion of a duty to act responsibly on the part of the platforms, on focusing on specific kinds of harms and harms that I think most would be on board with, I think they get some of those issues right.”

Under the broadly worded duty to act responsibly, platforms will be responsible for reducing exposure to harmful content and providing users the ability to flag it.

Requirements to remove content deemed harmful have also been scaled back from the early version, which Geist hailed as a positive step forward.

What concerns him is the bill’s proposal to create a five-person digital safety commission that would be given broad powers to enforce the rules. 

WATCH | B.C. plan to tackle harmful content validating to young users, says expert:

B.C.’s plan to protect kids from online harm validates young people’s concerns, law professor saysUniversity of B.C. professor Kristen Thomasen, an expert on artificial intelligence laws, tells BC Today host Michelle Eliot the province’s plan to hold social media companies accountable for online harms sends an important signal to young people.

That panel, he says, will need to include people with perspectives from multiple sides of the issue, from civil liberties experts focused on privacy and equality, in addition to those who have experienced harm from online content.

“The way you get confidence is to build in rules of evidence, and ensuring that you’ve got a wide range of perspectives, as well as oversight on the kinds of decisions that get made. 

Virani says the government looked at existing laws internationally — including in Germany where the country’s strict laws against online content have been criticized as going too far — in writing the bill.

Advocate praises billCarol Todd — the mother of Amanda Todd who died by suicide in 2012 after being the victim of online sexual extortion and cyberbullying — says rules around harmful online content were a “long time coming.”

“I can’t bring Amanda back, but I certainly want to be able to support and make sure nothing happens to other children,” said Todd, who is now an advocate for online safety.

Carol Todd, the mother of Amanda Todd, who died by suicide in 2012 after being the victim of sexual extortion and cyberbullying, welcomed the bill. (Ben Nelms/CBC)Todd said she believes legislation like the Online Harms Act could have protected her daughter. At the time of Amanda’s death, Todd said she felt powerless to hold social media platforms to account.

Under the bill, people would be able to submit complaints and non-compliance reports about tech platforms to the proposed digital safety commission.

“Our kids are goldfish in a big pond and those predators know that,” said Todd.

However, she worries that tech companies won’t actually enforce the rules. 

Meta — the parent company for social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram — indicated it plans to work with the government.

“We support the federal government’s goal of helping young people have safe, positive experiences online and have spent more than a decade developing industry-leading tools and policies to protect them,” the company said in a media statement.

Virani says he’s optimistic the companies will buy in, particularly given the financial risks. Companies found breaking the rules risk a penalty of up to $25 million.

“Canadian safety is equal to the financial imperative that is driving these companies right now,” said Virani. 


Jason Vermes is a writer and editor for CBC Radio Digital, originally from Nova Scotia and currently based in Toronto. He frequently covers topics related to the LGBTQ community and previously reported on disability and accessibility. He has also worked as an online writer and producer for CBC Radio Day 6 and Cross Country Checkup. You can reach him at

Produced by Ines Colabrese, Padraig Moran and Enza Uda. With files from CBC News

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