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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill during Question Period, on Sept. 18, 2023.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

There is one message Canada’s major political leaders want to send you about their opponent’s internet policies: Be afraid.

The only thing more dangerous than the evils of the internet, they tell us, is what their opponent will do about it.

Last week, the Prime Minister of Canada warned us that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is coming for your porn, or at least that he’d make you turn over your personal information to “sketchy websites.”

To be fair, Justin Trudeau’s attack was far more accurate than the irrational diatribe delivered by Mr. Poilievre about the online harms legislation the Liberal government is about to introduce.

He asserted that Mr. Trudeau will criminalize any speech of which he disapproves, and then went on to make random claims of coming censorship.

“Recently, a school board in Ontario banned Anne Frank’s books. So would that be considered hate speech? Under Justin Trudeau’s woke authoritarian agenda? I think it would,” Mr. Poilievre said a press event in Kitchener, Ont., last week.

Why does Mr. Poilievre think that? Well, he doesn’t, of course. It’s a ridiculous leap from a dumb decision by a school board to cull old books to a fake Liberal plan to ban Anne Frank’s diary in an internet bill.

There are two bills about internet safety coming onto Parliament’s agenda, and every sign that the political debate won’t be fit for grown-ups.

One is the government’s online harms bill, which has been long-delayed because the Liberals botched the job before by rushing out hodge-podge measures that in their totality pleased just about nobody.

This week, Mr. Trudeau’s government is slated to table a new version that is supposed to address issues such as child pornography, revenge porn, deepfakes, incitements to children to self-harm and hate speech.

And yes, it is possible that it will go too far in some respects. But certainly not in the weird ways Mr. Poilievre suggests. A serious critique might actually be useful.

Instead, Mr. Poilievre asserted the bill would make Mr. Trudeau – whom he called a “hateful racist” because of his history of wearing blackface – the arbiter of what is hate speech. And folks, no bill would give any prime minister that role.

Yet in legislation such as this, there is potential for overreach that should be taken seriously. That could be in bad definitions of hate speech, too much left to regulations rather than legislation, or too much interpretive power given to police or other authorities. It could also set onerous but ineffective rules.

So far, the Liberal government has been poor at thinking through online regulation. They have treated it more as a political promise than a complex societal issue.

Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor and the Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law, worries the government’s main desire is still to put up a “mission accomplished” sign to say they have acted.

Mr. Poilievre, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to have any interest in the complexities of the issue. Still, there’s no arguing that the internet is free of harms. Mr. Poilievre expressed support last week for a bill that would require porn sites to institute age verification for minors.

The bill, proposed by Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne, has been supported by the Conservatives, Bloc Québécois, NDP and some Liberal MPs – so it could pass into law.

The bill does not define what age-verification technology would be used, and critics warn the options, including sending personal information to porn sites or some sort of third-party digital ID, create substantial privacy and security risks.

As soon as Mr. Poilievre declared his personal support for it, Mr. Trudeau piped up at the end of a press conference – where no reporter asked – to warn it would require giving “personal information to sketchy websites or create a digital ID for adults to be able to browse the web.”

There isn’t a simple, neat solution for age-verification. But Ms. Miville-Dechêne notes society’s interest in keeping porn from children did not go away just because it is online. What will the Prime Minister do about it?

And what will Mr. Poilievre, now the odds-on favourite to become the next prime minister, propose to do about other online harms?

Internet regulation isn’t a niche issue now. It is a serious, complex question, and we should expect more than cartoonish answers.

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