Government claims new bill will tackle proliferation of hateful online content

Longfield says bill will ‘greatly improve’ online experience; Conservative MPs say government stifling free speech

OTTAWA – The Liberal government has introduced Bill C-63, the Online Harms Act, which the government says will safeguard Canadians from online hate and protect children online.

The bill, as tabled in the House of Commons on Feb. 26, would:

  • create a new hate crime offence that can be applied to any offence within the Criminal Code of Canada;
  • force the removal of hateful online content (including child-sexual-abuse material) within 24 hours;
  • introduce a new maximum sentence of life imprisonment for hate-motivated crimes;
  • introduce a life sentence for advocating genocide;
  • increase the sentence for hate/propaganda offences, such as statements inciting hatred or violence against an identifiable group, from two to five years;
  • allow the Canadian Human Rights Commission to order the takedown of online content and award financial compensation of up to $20,000; and
  • allow judges to order people to stay home or be electronically monitored based on fear of a hate crime or propaganda offence being be committed.

The legislation follows promises from the Liberal government during the past two federal elections to tackle online content deemed harmful by the government.

Specifically addressed by Bill C-63 are seven types of content, including:

  • sexually victimizing a child or revictimizing a survivor;
  • intimate content communicated without consent;
  • bullying a child;
  • inducing a child to harm themselves;
  • fomenting hatred;
  • inciting violence; and
  • inciting violent extremism or terrorism.

Social media platforms, websites with user-uploaded content such as YouTube and Pornhub, and live-streaming services such as Twitch, are all covered by the bill.

Some online sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, would be required to report child sexual abuse material, and make certain types of content unavailable.

Failure to comply could fetch fines up to $10 million, and $25 million for repeated non-compliance.

A new Digital Safety Office would oversee a new commission and ombudsperson created under the bill.

A Digital Safety Commission would have powers to order online content sexualizing children to be removed, and a digital safety ombudsperson would provide supports and make recommendations to online platforms and government.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission would be tasked with handling public complaints about online speech perceived as discrimination.

The quasi-judicial commission wouldn’t need proof beyond a reasonable doubt to make a determination like courts do.

A previous version of the current bill, Bill C-36, also sought to address a proliferation of hate-related propaganda, crimes and speech online.

It never made it beyond a first reading before parliament was dissolved for an early federal election in 2021.

Guelph Liberal MP Lloyd Longfield told the Advertiser the new bill would create “a baseline standard for online platforms” and “greatly improve” Canadians’ online experiences, while holding social media websites accountable for algorithms that push forward what users see online.

Longfield said hate speech isn’t the same as speech someone finds offensive, harmful or hurtful.

“It involves detestation or vilification, and is stronger than disdain or dislike,” he said.

“There are consequences for uttering hate speech in public; we are making sure that those same consequences exist online.”

He also noted the bill doesn’t apply to “private communications” such as encrypted messaging.

The bill, he said, “sets out fair and transparent processes that allow public participation and scrutiny.”

Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong told the Advertiser the government is “creating more bureaucracy and censoring opinions” instead of protecting children and punishing criminals.

Chong stated victimizing children online should be criminalized and enforced, along with non-consensual sharing of intimate content.

However the place to address those issues lies with law enforcement and the courts, Chong added, not having it “pushed off to a new bureaucracy that does nothing to prevent crimes and provides no justice to victims.”

Perth-Wellington MP John Nater largely reiterated points made in Chong’s written statement, but added the government shouldn’t be using the legislation to “inhibit freedom of speech in the public forum.”