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Acclaimed author Margaret Atwood has warned that the federal government’s online harms bill is “Orwellian” and its definitions of punishable hate speech are vague and could invite abuse, such as unwarranted complaints under the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Ms. Atwood said she has been the frequent target of “hate speech, online vilification, lies, threats and doxxing” and is “no fan of this kind of online behaviour.” But, in an e-mail exchange with The Globe and Mail, she said she is “also no fan of unsupervised authority acting under vague laws, without any oversight.”

On Friday, she posted on X her concerns about “Trudeau’s Orwellian online harms bill” after reading an article about it in The Spectator. “If this account of the bill is true, it’s Lettres de Cachet all over again,” she wrote, referring to letters once signed by the King of France with orders to enforce arbitrary judgments.

“The possibilities for revenge false accusations and thoughtcrime stuff are sooo inviting!” she added.

Ms. Atwood was referring to George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, about a dystopian society where “thought crimes” are punishable under the totalitarian state of Oceania. The regime’s Thought Police conduct constant surveillance to suppress free thought and expression, while the Ministry of Truth pumps out propaganda to crush individuality and manipulate the news and history.

In Ms. Atwood’s acclaimed novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which was made into a film and Emmy Award-winning TV series, the patriarchal Gilead regime suppresses freedom of speech to curtail dissent and reinforce its authority.

Justice Minister Arif Virani, who is shepherding the online harms bill through the Commons, responded to Ms. Atwood’s post on X, saying he was “happy to discuss” it.

“Grateful for your interest in the Online Harms Act – which would keep kids safe, apply existing laws to the online world and address the rise in hate – but the article you’ve shared mischaracterizes the bill,” he told the award-winning author.

Mr. Virani directed Ms. Atwood to an article from The Canadian Press that reported him saying he had listened to victims of hate, and judges would have to take a series of steps before restricting a person’s movement because of fears they may commit a hate crime.

Bill C-63, the online harms bill, was introduced last month and would usher in measures to combat hate online, allowing people to complain to Canada’s Human Rights Commission about hateful posts.

People deemed to have been subjected to hate speech online could receive as much as $20,000 in compensation if they are named, and such posts would have to be taken down.

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

But some lawyers have expressed concerns that the measures could put a chill on free speech, saying many people do not know what constitutes hate speech and would avoid expressing their views to avoid complaints and big fines.

Ms. Atwood, whose literary awards include the Booker and Giller prizes, wondered whether people might try to cash in by making complaints of hate speech. She also expressed unease that the new power might lead to people making false accusations.

The acclaimed author of Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin warned that “the definitions or lack of them in the law as to what constitutes punishable speech and/or thought are so vague as to invite abuse.”

A clause in the bill would allow a judge to impose a peace bond with restrictions on liberty, including house arrest and an electronic tag, on someone “feared” to be about to post hate propaganda online or carry out a hate crime, even if they have not yet done so.

The new power, which would require the approval of both the attorney-general and a judge, could be used to restrain someone deemed to pose a threat. The restrictions could apply for up to a year – two years if the person subject to the peace bond has a previous conviction for hate propaganda or a hate crime.

Ms. Atwood said she had been referring to that clause when she posted her reference to Orwellian “thought crime.”

She alluded to periods in history when accused people were denied fair trials, such as during the Spanish Inquisition; the French Revolution, when the Law of 22 Prairial denied the accused an effective right to self-defence; and the Salem witch trials of 1692-93, when “spectral evidence” led to 19 people, mainly women, being hanged for allegedly practising witchcraft.

The online harms bill would establish a new hate-crime offence, which would carry a possible life sentence for the most serious crimes, such as attempted murder.

The bill would also require social-media platforms to take steps to prevent children being exposed to online hate.

“If people really didn’t want children subject to online harm, they would not permit them to have smartphones before a certain age,” Ms. Atwood said.

Last year Ms. Atwood raised concerns about the Online Streaming Act, Bill C-11, which makes platforms promote Canadian content. She said that “bureaucrats should not be telling creators what to write.”

Her remarks were seized upon by both Conservative and Liberal MPs, including Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, and quoted in parliamentary debates.

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