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This week, the federal government introduced the long-awaited Online Harms Act, which would force online platforms to remove child pornography and other harmful content within 24 hours.

The bill would also create a new standalone hate crime, which can be applied to any offence of the Criminal Code when the underlying cause was hate. It would also raise penalties for hate-propaganda offences from five years to life imprisonment for advocating genocide.

In addition, the bill would also amend the Canadian Human Rights Act, specifying that posting hate speech online is discrimination and giving people an option to take an issue over a hateful post to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Child-protection organizations, including the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, have been calling on the government to force websites to take down child-abuse images more swiftly. They say that Ottawa needs to force tech companies to remove indecent images of children immediately.

The bill, which has been years in the making, comes after many reports of online abuse involving children, including the high-profile death of Amanda Todd, the 15-year-old who died by suicide at her home in Port Coquitlam in 2012, weeks after posting a video describing being harassed and extorted by an online predator. Last November, 12-year-old Carson Cleland died by suicide in Prince George, after being sexually extorted online.

Here’s what we know about Bill C-63 so far:

What is Bill C-63?

Bill C-63 would require major social-media platforms to remove content that falls within seven categories:

  • content that sexually victimizes a child or revictimizes a survivor
  • content that incites violent extremism or terrorism
  • content that incites violence
  • content that foments hatred
  • content used to bully a child
  • intimate content communicated without consent, such as revenge porn
  • content that induces a child to harm themselves.

The content would have to be removed within 24 hours. The bill will also create a new hate-crime offence, which will carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Victims of hate speech could receive up to $20,000 in compensation.

Which platforms are included in the bill?

The bill covers social-media, porn platforms where users upload videos of themselves, and live-streaming services that meet a user threshold. The bill excludes private and encrypted messaging platforms.

The bill will require social-media platforms to have tools to flag content and block users, as well as creating a point of contact for user complaints. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook would have a duty to report child pornography to help law enforcement.

Online platforms would also have an overarching duty to act responsibly and make certain types of content inaccessible and to protect children. Failure of platforms to comply could lead to fines of up to $10-million, and those who persistently ignore demands to obey the new law could face penalties of up to $25-million.

How will the legislation be enforced?

The federal government says the bill would create a five-member Digital Safety Commission to enforce the rules. The commission would be able to order the removal of online content that sexualizes children. The bill also proposes creating a new digital safety ombudsperson who would provide support for users and make recommendations to social media services and the government.

The bill would amend the Criminal Code to enforce stiff penalties for perpetrators. People found guilty of posting hate speech could be forced to pay victims up to $20,000 in compensation. If they refuse to comply, for example by repeatedly reposting hate speech, they could face a fine of up to $50,000. Penalties for hate propaganda offences would increase from five years to life imprisonment for advocating genocide.

The bill would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to allow victims to file complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which would adjudicate disputes. Under the new changes, a provision would be re-added to the Act, which was taken out in 2013 by Stephen Harper, to make posting hate speech online a form of discrimination.

According to a background briefing by federal public servants, the bill sets a “high bar” for what would count as hate speech and it would not include offensive or humiliating comments or remarks expressing dislike, disdain or political dissent.

What are critics saying?

Lawyers and other experts have said the bill’s intention to change the Human Rights Act to make posting hate speech online a form of discrimination could have a chilling effect on free speech. Some have warned that the bill could silence comedians and commentators, who may fear being reported.

Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa’s Canada Research Chair in internet law, raised fears about the potential for overly broad interpretation of harms, but does feel that some measures are needed to combat online harms.

Author Margaret Atwood called the bill “Orwellian” and said its definition of hate speech is vague. She was specifically referring to a clause in the bill that would allow a judge to impose restrictions – such as house arrest – on someone if they’re “feared” to post hate propaganda online in the future.

What have other countries done to protect children online?

Britain, the European Union and Australia have all passed legislation aimed at protecting children online. In Britain, the controversial Online Safety Act, which passed in October, 2023, requires tech companies to take down illegal content from their platforms, including child pornography, hate speech and posts promoting self-harm. The law also requires porn websites to verify users’ ages.

With a report from Marie Woolf

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