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Justice Minister Arif Virani said online harms bill would strike a balance and that content that is 'awful but lawful' would remain online.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Justice Minister Arif Virani has defended a new power in the online harms bill to impose house arrest on someone who is feared to commit a hate crime in the future – even if they have not yet done so already.

The person could be made to wear an electronic tag, if the attorney-general requests it, or ordered by a judge to remain at home, the bill says.

Mr. Virani, who is Attorney-General as well as Justice Minister, said it is important that any peace bond be “calibrated carefully,” saying it would have to meet a high threshold to apply.

But he said the new power, which would require the attorney-general’s approval as well as a judge’s, could prove “very, very important” to restrain the behaviour of someone with a track record of hateful behaviour who may be targeting certain people or groups.

If “there’s a genuine fear of an escalation, then an individual or group could come forward and seek a peace bond against them and to prevent them from doing certain things.”

The peace bond could have conditions that include not being close to a synagogue or a mosque, he said. It could also lead to restrictions on internet usage and behaviour. “That would help to deradicalize people who are learning things online and acting out in the real world violently – sometimes fatally.”

Mr. Virani said the bill would strike a balance, though, and would mean that content that is “awful but lawful” would remain online.

“There’s a lot of bad stuff out there. But this is not about the bad stuff. This is a much higher level,” he said.

Bill C-63 is designed to curb the proliferation of hate online, but it also establishes a new hate-crime offence, which would carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Mr. Virani said the hate-crime offence would only be applied if coupled with another crime and the life sentence would only apply in the most serious of cases – not, for example, for mischief to a garage door.

“What’s really critical is that it gives the judge a wonderful range of sentences. This is not a mandatory minimum of a life sentence, this is just a larger range, including what would be the maximum sentence,” he said.

The bill also would make online platforms swiftly take down child sexual-abuse material, as well as sexual content posted without consent. But the government stepped back from forcing platforms to take down hate speech within 24 hours, introducing other tools to deal with this, including through a complaint to a new ombudsperson.

The bill’s predecessor, Bill C-36, died before the last election and the subsequent consultation would have forced social-media platforms to take down a wide range of content deemed harmful within 24 hours.

What to know about Bill C-63, Canada’s new online harms bill to protect children and prosecute hate crimes

Mr. Virani said the current bill followed studies of the experiences of other countries, including Britain, France and Germany, which have produced similar legislation. Some have had to reverse course after challenges and criticism.

Since it was published on Monday, some lawyers and constitutional experts have raised fears that Bill C-63 could chill free speech.

The bill would allow people to file complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission over what they perceive as hate speech online – including, for example, off-colour jokes by comedians. People found guilty of posting hate speech could have to pay victims up to $20,000 in compensation.

But experts including internet law professor Michael Geist have said even a threat of a civil complaint – with a lower burden of proof than a court of law – and a fine could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

Mr. Virani said as Justice Minister he has sworn to uphold the Constitution, which includes freedom of expression.

“Of course, I’m concerned about any chilling [of] freedom of expression. I heard those concerns, to a great extent,” he said.

He said the bill includes various safeguards to allow the human-rights commission to throw out frivolous complaints, including a kind of “summary dismissal mechanism” if a complaint does not hit the threshold for hatred or if someone files a complaint in bad faith. Costs could also be issued.

Mr. Virani said for those categories of harm online that would not need to be taken down within 24 hours, he would expect the response of the regulator, ombudsperson or other body examining a complaint to be “prompt.” Fears have been expressed that they could take months or even years to adjudicate on whether posts should be removed.

“Time is of the essence and we know how horrible material can go viral very, very quickly,” he said. He added for this reason it is critical that the bill progresses through Parliament to committee swiftly so the government can look at amendments.

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