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Online harms against minors, victims must be criminalized, not regulated: Poilievre

OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives would rather take a tough-on-crime approach to online safety issues affecting young people than support the Liberal government's plan to regulate them, says leader Pierre Poilievre.

Poilievre delivered the message in a statement released the day after the Liberal government introduced its long-awaited Online Harms Act, which proposes setting up a new digital safety commission.

The bill would compel social media platforms to take steps to reduce risk and require the prompt removal of certain content, including intimate images shared without consent and child sex abuse images that could be used to exploit a minor.

Experts consulted by the government say it's a significant improvement over the proposal the Liberals put forward in 2021, which proposed requiring platforms to remove content flagged as harmful within 24 hours.

Critics warned that approach was overly broad and risked violating freedom of expression, which sent officials back to the drawing board.

The Liberals have instead proposed targeting only the most egregious content online, pushing platforms to reduce the risk of exposure to such material or face hefty fines, and requiring them to produce safety plans.

Giving companies incentive to minimize exposure to harmful content is the right way to go, said Taylor Owen, a McGill University professor who advised the government on the bill.

"That's probably the best way of balancing the real freedom of expression issues when regulating social media because it's the place we speak ... where we participate in public," Owen said.

While there are details to be debated, such as how the proposed new regulatory body would operate, the proposed bill "gets the big things right," he added.

Poilievre, however, disagrees.

Conservatives believe in enforcing laws against sexually victimizing children, and favour criminalizing "bullying a child online" and "inducing a child to harm themselves," he said in a statement Tuesday.

Existing criminal bans on the non-consensual sharing of intimate images "must be enforced and expanded," he added, including when it comes to deepfakes generated by artificial intelligence.

Such conduct should be handled by police and the courts, "not pushed off to new bureaucracy" that would fail to better protect children, Poilievre said.

"Common sense Conservatives will protect our kids and punish criminals instead of creating more bureaucracy and censoring opinions."

He also accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of pushing legislation that seeks to ban the opinions of those he disagrees with.

Justice Minister Arif Virani said the Conservative approach to online harms ignores the wishes of victims, families and stakeholders.

"For too long, we have tolerated a system where online platforms have offloaded their responsibilities onto parents, expecting them to protect their kids from harms that platforms create or amplify," Virani said in a statement.

"Platforms have a duty to remove harmful content that exploits children and we are creating the mechanism to make that happen."

Poilievre has in the past mounted fierce opposition to the government's plans to regulate online streaming platforms and tech giants when it comes to news — including in fundraising emails to party supporters.

Beyond Tuesday's statement, however, the Conservative leader was largely quiet on the legislation the government introduced Monday — billed by Trudeau as focused on protecting children, not censoring Canadians online.

Statistics Canada released a new analysis on Tuesday that found Canadians aged 15 and 24 were the most likely to encounter content online that ranges from terrorist material to that which seeks to incite hate.

A law-and-order approach to the challenge would risk putting children in harm's way before authorities could take action, said Signy Arnason, the associate executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

Measures to prevent such harm from happening in the first place are what is necessary, she argued.

Bernie Farber, the former chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, warned Tuesday against turning the bill's newly reintroduced section of the Canadian Human Rights Act into a game of political "yo-yo."

Stephen Harper's former Conservative government repealed that provision in 2013 out of concern it constituted a violation of free speech rights. The Liberals are proposing to resurrect it in a modified form.

The new language would classify the dissemination of hate speech online as a form of discrimination, a move Farber said he welcomes. Poilievre did not specifically address that change Tuesday.

The bill, if passed, would define hate speech as "content of a communication that expresses detestation or vilification" of a person or groups "on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination."

The legislation as written specifically excludes from that definition content that merely expresses "disdain or dislike" or that "discredits, humiliates, hurts or offends." It would also not apply to private communications.

That definition is considerably narrower than the original section of the act struck down by the Conservatives more than a decade ago.

That original clause defined hate speech as anything "likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt" on the basis of their race, gender, religion or other prohibited grounds of discrimination.

Since that particular section of the Canadian Human Rights Act was repealed, social media has "exploded with hatred," said Farber, who was on the panel of experts that advised the government on the new bill.

"If this section becomes a yo-yo, woe to us as a society," he said. "We need these kinds of guidelines, these kinds of walls, in order to better protect human beings."

If the new bill becomes law, anyone found responsible for a substantiated instance of online hate speech could be ordered to end the behavior or be required to pay a victim upwards of $20,000 in compensation.

Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in internet and e-commerce law, called Tuesday for a close, careful look at the structure of the proposed digital safety commission.

The bill would provide that commission with sweeping authority, including the ability to levy millions in fines and undertake investigations, Geist said.

"There are just a breathtaking number of powers that are vested in this commission."

Staffing it with just three to five members may not be enough to reflect the range of opinion and expertise required to make decisions around regulating social media companies, which is a complex undertaking, he added.

"If it gets some of these decisions wrong, or if there's a lack of confidence in who's on (the commission) or how it handles itself, then that is going to fuel the deep skepticism that certainly exists among some Canadians about this effort, who see it more as an attempt at censorship."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2024.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press