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Online harms: Liberals seek to create digital safety commission, new ombudsperson

OTTAWA — The Liberal government plans to create a new digital safety regulator to compel social-media platforms to take action against online harms and remove damaging content — including child sex-abuse material and intimate images shared without consent — under penalty of millions of dollars in fines.

Justice Minister Arif Virani tabled the long-awaited Online Harms Act on Monday, along with a suite of other amendments to the Criminal Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Known as Bill C-63, the legislation ushers in the creation of a "Digital Safety Commission of Canada," along with a new ombudsperson to advocate for users who have concerns about online safety.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has long promised to better protect Canadians, especially youth, from online harms — including a vow to table legislation within 100 days of his re-election in 2021.

In the years since, his ministers have repeatedly said developing such legislation was complicated, as it needed to balance protecting freedom of expression with enhancing online safety for children.

Virani reiterated that during a news conference late Monday, saying the government was only targeting the most "egregious" content.

As he spoke, he was flanked by stakeholders from different advocacy organizations who were supportive of the bill, including a woman identified only as Jane, who told the story about her child being sexually abused and having those images circulate on the internet.

"There's no tolerance in the public domain for that kind of material and that kind of material needs to be brought down immediately," the minister said.

The new bill covers the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, also known as revenge porn, including deepfakes created by artificial intelligence, as well as content used to cyberbully, urge self-harm or incite violence, terrorism or hatred.

It seeks to give the new digital safety commission power to "order removal of content that sexually victimizes a child or revictimizes a survivor — which covers child sex-abuse images predators can use to exploit a minor — well as intimate images shared without an individual's consent

Companies, which must generally abide by a "duty to act responsibly," must remove such material within 24 hours, according to the government.

Under the new bill, users could file a complaint with the platform itself or to the new regulator — the leadership of which would be decided by the House of Commons, Virani said Monday.

Government officials say companies would have the chance to evaluate such complaints, but failing to remove the material could make them subject to administrative fines or orders to do so. The fines could hit upward of six per cent of global revenue a site makes, which would amount to millions.

Determining what social media sites meet the threshold for regulation will be done by volume of users, with the legislation allowing for cabinet to include smaller sites if they see a risk of online harms.

Reserving the power to compel platforms to remove only two types of harmful content is a marked departure from the proposal the government released in 2021, based on a consultation document.

It suggested making it a rule for companies to remove any material flagged as harmful within 24 hours.

Privacy experts and other critics roundly blasted that provision as being overly broad. They said it could violate freedom of expression, since companies might be overly cautious and end up removing posts and images that were legitimate to avoid running afoul of the rules.

Not only did the government listen to that feedback, Virani said, Canada looked to countries with similar laws that ended up scaling back those provisions.

He said the government's bill will also not touch private or encrypted messages, as it looks to protect freedom of expression.

"We are doing this now in a very measured and appropriate manner that addresses the harms as we see them but ensures that Canadians' private communications will be exempt."

He said the internet would still be full of content that he called "awful but lawful," and that it's using the definition of hate as defined by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The bill itself contains a provision that says nothing requires a social media site "to proactively search content on a regulated service" to identify harmful content, which officials said was to ensure freedom of expression was respected.

A spokesperson for TikTok said it was reviewing the legislation, as was Snapchat.

Rachel Curran, who heads public policy for Meta Canada, said in a statement that it supports the legislation's goal of keeping Canadians safe. Meta said it already has 30 measures available to parents to use to keep their children safe while using the platform.

The Liberals are also amending the Criminal Code to introduce stiffer punishments for existing hate propaganda offences and amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include online hate speech as a form of discrimination.

Doing so resurrects a section of the act the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper removed.

Among the advocates who had championed the bill was the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which has called for more government and police action against a sharp rise in antisemitism since the Israel-Hamas war began.

The bill proposes to stiffen the penalty for someone found guilty of advocating genocide to life imprisonment, up from five years in prison.

Two mothers whose kids died by suicide after being victimized online are urging federal lawmakers to pass the bill.

Carol Todd, whose daughter Amanda posted a video on YouTube detailing her ordeal before she died in 2012, said she wants parties across the political spectrum to communicate with each other to get it passed quickly.

Legislation targeting online sextortion and cyberbullying should have been introduced sooner, she said. "It's the lives of our kids."

Seventeen-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons was taken off life support following a suicide attempt in 2013. Her family said she was harassed both at school and online over an intimate photo taken without her consent.

Her mother, Leah Parsons, said Monday that the legislation had to happen and "these social media platforms need to be accountable for what’s happening on their platforms."

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has called on Trudeau for weeks to introduce the long-awaited bill, pointing to the case of 12-year-old Carson Cleland of Prince George, B.C.

Last October, police said he was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound after his family said he had fallen victim to online sextortion.

Peter Julian, the party's critic in Parliament for public safety, said he believes the bill needs to be studied carefully clause by clause and said New Democrats feel it's missing measures that would compel companies to be transparent about their algorithms.

In the lead-up to the bill being tabled, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre signalled his opposition to it, saying he believed Trudeau would target online speech.

His office did not respond to a request for comment by late Monday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2024.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press