The federal government has launched a new consultation that it says will lead to combatting online hate shared on social media sites – a move that has prompted advocates to say real change isn’t coming fast enough.
The government is asking the public to respond to a proposal that includes creating a new Digital Safety Commissioner of Canada, as well as a Digital Recourse Council that Canadians can petition in order to have content removed from social media sites. The Recourse Council would have the power to make binding decisions to make sites remove content, though the consequences for not abiding by that ruling are not yet clear.
The plans, announced Thursday, focus on five categories of online harms: terrorist content, hate speech, content that incites violence, child sexual exploitation and the non-consensual sharing of images.
The government says it wants to bring in legislation on online hate, aimed at social media companies that play a role in sharing content. It would be in addition to Bill C-36, which targeted public hate speech by individuals. Bill C-36 did not pass into law after being introduced by the Liberal government at the end of the parliamentary session. If an election is called this summer, as is widely expected, the legislation will no longer move forward.
Despite a campaign being anticipated soon, Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said the new online harms bill would be introduced as a top priority “very early on when the House resumes its work in the fall.”
“We’re hearing loud and clear from Canadians that something needs to be done about online hate,” Mr. Guilbeault said in an interview.
“What we’re presenting is what we feel is the best course forward, but we want to hear Canadians on that, and that’s what we’ll be doing in the coming weeks.”
The government has posted details of its proposed approach on the Canadian Heritage section of its website and is asking the public to provide feedback by e-mail. The potential legislation would apply to sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, but would exclude private communication channels such as WhatsApp and telecommunications networks.
Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said creating online hate legislation would be a positive move. However, he said that at the moment it’s only “a plan to make a plan.”
“It should not have taken this long and it should not be taking any longer,” he said. “My fear is that an election is going to get called and this just gets swept away into partisan politics and people forget about it.”
Mr. Farber also raised the issue of how the process of dealing with online hate still heavily relies on victims self-reporting to have content removed, and said he’d like to see more of the onus fall on a new commissioner instead.
Daniel Bernhard, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, said in a statement that platforms such as Facebook and YouTube must be held responsible for their role in promoting illegal content on their sites. “Legislation aimed at tackling online harm must send a clear message to these firms and their leaders: if you allow illegal content to circulate on your platform, you will pay a price,” the statement reads.
Rob Moore, Conservative Shadow Minister for Justice and the Attorney General of Canada, said in an e-mailed statement Thursday that his party is “deeply concerned with the Liberal’s plan to create an online speech regulator whose powers are overly broad and ill-defined.”
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