Justice Minister Says He's Open To Changing Online Harms Bill | CBC News


Federal Justice Minister Arif Virani said Friday he’s open to amending the government’s long-awaited legislation aimed at protecting Canadians from online harms, while the Opposition Conservatives say the Liberals should instead move faster by modernizing existing laws.

Conservatives say Liberals should instead modernize existing laws

Stephanie Taylor · The Canadian Press

· Posted: Jun 07, 2024 5:08 PM EDT | Last Updated: June 7

Arif Virani, minister of justice and attorney general, speaks in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, May 6, 2024. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)Federal Justice Minister Arif Virani said Friday he’s open to amending the government’s long-awaited legislation aimed at protecting Canadians from online harms, while the Opposition Conservatives say the Liberals should instead move faster by modernizing existing laws.

On Friday, Virani defended the Online Harms Act in the House of Commons for the first time since he tabled the legislation back in February.

Since then, legal and privacy experts, as well as civil society advocates, have voiced concerns about its potential to limit free speech.

The bill would impose stiffer Criminal Code punishments for hate-related offences. The legislation would allow for sentences ranging up to life imprisonment for advocating genocide and would give a judge the power to restrict someone’s movements if they have evidence that person could commit a hate crime.

The bill also establishes a new way for Canadians to file human rights complaints about hate speech.

“Canadians should not be expected to have their right to protected speech chilled or limited in order to be safe online,” said Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner.

Virani defended those measures by underlining how online hate “has real world consequences,” but said he’s open to suggestions from opposition parties.

Some advocates have suggested the government section off the controversial Criminal Code and Human Rights Act changes into a separate bill, and leave the Online Harms Act to deal exclusively with online content. Virani dismissed the idea.

“I want to be very clear about the Online Harms Act and what it does not do,” he said in his speech on Friday.

“It does not undermine freedom of speech. It enhances free expression by empowering all people to safely participate in online debate.”

WATCH | Federal government introduces online harms bill   

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.

The government plans to do that by compelling companies to submit safety plans to a new Digital Safety Commission that would outline how they will reduce the risk of exposing users to seven different types of dangerous content.

Those include images of sexual abuse of children, intimate images shared without consent, and material that can be used to bully a child or encourage them to commit self-harm.

The commission would field complaints and be able to levy hefty fines on platforms that do not comply.

“For too long, the profits of platforms have come before the safety of users,” said Virani.

“Self-regulation has failed to keep our kids safe. Stories of tragedy have become far too common.”

The minister pointed to the story of Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old from Port Coquitlam, B.C., who died by suicide in 2012 after she was harassed and bullied by an online predator in the Netherlands.

Rempel Garner said it’s important that Canadians are protected against online harms like “deepfakes” generated by artificial intelligence. She accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of inaction after nearly a decade in power.

She suggested the Liberals could move more quickly by instead expanding and updating the country’s existing laws and regulations to ensure they apply to the dangers of the digital world.

“The point is,” Rempel Garner said, “we could come to consensus in this place on simple modernization issues that would update the laws now.”

For example, she said MPs could simply legislate the creation of a digital restraining order for victims of online harassment.

AT ISSUE | Personal attacks over online harms bill

At Issue | Personal attacks over online harms billAt Issue this week: The federal Liberals are set to announce a bill to make the internet safer for kids, something the Opposition says limits free speech. Quebec asks for $1 billion to handle the growing costs of asylum seekers. Plus, the head of the firm at the centre of the ArriveCan affair summoned to Parliament.

In addition to creating a new Digital Safety Commission, the government also plans to create a new Digital Safety Office and a Digital Safety Ombudsperson of Canada, where users and victims could take their concerns.

Rempel Garner said she has asked the Parliamentary Budget Officer to analyze the cost of setting up the new bureaucracy.

She called the bill “completely flawed” and said it “should be abandoned.”

Meanwhile, NDP House leader Peter Julian accused the government of being slow to introduce the bill in the first place. It was first promised years ago.

He said he’s concerned it does not mention ensuring companies are transparent about the algorithms they employ, which he said can cause users to be exposed to online hate and other dangers.

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