Elon Musk joins controversy over new Canadian bill that would let citizens seek damages for online hate speech

Elon Musk during the 2024 Milken Conference in Beverly Hills, California, May 2024 (REUTERS/David Swanson)
Elon Musk during the 2024 Milken Conference in Beverly Hills, California, May 2024 (REUTERS/David Swanson)

Elon Musk has waded into the debate about a new Canadian hate speech bill that would allow citizens to seek financial compensation from anyone who posts "discriminatory" content online.

The new Online Harms Bill, unveiled in February by Canada's ruling Liberal Party and championed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, would create a government body charged with regulating hate speech and protecting children on social media.

Separately, it would also raise the maximum sentences for illegal hate speech, while allowing citizens to report discriminatory speech to a human rights tribunal with the power to award compensation of up to C$20,000 or a fine of up to C$50,000.

On Tuesday, Mr Musk retweeted what appears to be an untrue claim about the bill: that it gives police the power to arrest anyone who has ever posted hate speech, even if it happened before the bill was passed.

"This sounds insane if accurate! @CommunityNotes, please check," said Mr Musk on X (formerly Twitter), tagging in the social network's crowdsourced fact checking service to examine the claim.

Certain forms of hate speech are already illegal in Canada, and The Independent could find no evidence that the bill gives police new powers to arrest people for retrospective breaches.

Mr Musk frequently shares dubious claims or theories with his more than 182 million followers, often coupled with a request for a fact check from X's community volunteers.

In a recent defamation lawsuit over some of his previous tweets, the X owner and Tesla boss argued that his decision to tag in Community Notes was evidence that he had only boosted false information in a "good faith" attempt to ascertain whether or not it was true.

The Online Harms Bill, which would regulate X as well as other social networks, has been controversial in Canada, with civil rights groups accusing it of "draconian" provisions that could "criminalise political activism".

Among other things, the bill would make promoting genocide punishable by life in prison, raise the maximum prison sentence for other hate speech crimes from two years to five years, and allow courts to impose a life sentence for any other crime if it is motivated by hatred based on protected characteristics.

One particularly contentious provision would let a judge put someone under house arrest if they believe the person would commit a hate crime in future – although this would need to be approved by the attorney general.

Canada's justice minister has argued that these provisions would only be invoked in the most extreme cases and that they are necessary to prevent people with a long record of bigoted behaviour from escalating into harassment or violence.

Another part of the bill would allow the Canadian Human Rights Commission to examine complaints about online hate speech, and impose fines or a court order where they consider it appropriate.

The claim retweeted by Mr Musk is a distorted version of one made in an opinion article by the British conservative commentator Toby Young, which argues that this complaints procedure would apply to "anything you’ve posted, ever, dating back to the dawn of the internet".

"In other words, it’s a gold-embossed invitation to offence archaeologists to do their worst, with the prospect of a $20,000 reward if they hit paydirt. The only way to protect yourself is to go through all your social media accounts and painstakingly delete anything remotely controversial you’ve ever said," wrote Mr Young.

The text of the bill says that past hate speech can be examined by the Commission, "so long as the hate speech remains public and the person can remove or block access to it".

But it’s not clear whether that would actually apply to posts made before the Bill became law, as opposed to posts that the author has refused to take down after it came into force.

”Generally speaking, laws don't have a retroactive effect... in Canada,” Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, told The Independent.

“If that provision did have a retroactive effect, that would have a very, very broad reach. And it should not have a retroactive effect; that would be a bad interpretation of that provision, which [we] would stand against.”

The Canadian Department of Justice did not immediately respond to questions from The Independent.

This story was updated at 9:14pm Eastern Time on Tuesday 7 May 2024 to add a statement from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.