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Justice Minister cautions MPs about the potential risks of the Internet while advocating for the Online Harms Bill

During his testimony before the Commons justice committee this week, Justice Minister Arif Virani staunchly defended the government’s Online Harms legislation, even as MPs, including some within his own party, raised questions about its scope.

Mr. Virani assured MPs that the Online Harms Act (Bill C-63) would enhance the security of online communities and bolster protection against inappropriate content that often appears on children’s screens.

“Social media is ubiquitous,” Mr. Virani emphasized before the committee on March 21. “It presents unchecked dangers and horrific content. This is deeply concerning to me. We must ensure the internet is a safe space.”

The introduction of Bill C-63 by the Liberal government last month aimed to limit Canadians’ exposure to “harmful content.” The legislation seeks to establish specific safeguards for children and hold online platforms like Facebook and YouTube accountable for reducing exposure to harmful content while also promoting transparency in their efforts. Monitoring compliance with the act would fall under the jurisdiction of a five-member Digital Safety Commission.

Mr. Virani pointed out that the current lack of safety online is due to the absence of a “basic network of trust” in the digital realm. He argued that the Online Harms Act would set clear guidelines for online conduct.

However, Conservative MP Rob Moore criticized the bill as unconstitutional and predicted that it would face legal challenges if enacted.

Liberal MPs Marco Mendicino and Élisabeth Brière also expressed reservations about the legislation.

Ms. Brière labeled the bill as contentious, emphasizing the importance of respecting diverse opinions. She advocated for a more compassionate approach, urging for constructive dialogue and open-mindedness.

Furthermore, Mr. Mendicino highlighted that the legislation would restrict access to certain content and introduce new investigative powers, including private hearings.

Criminal Code Changes

If passed, the bill would introduce a new definition of “hatred” in section 319 of the Criminal Code, addressing public incitement of hatred and promotion of hatred and anti-Semitism. Additionally, Bill C-63 would incorporate a new standalone hate crime offence into the Criminal Code, which would apply to existing criminal offences.

The bill also proposes amending the Canadian Human Rights Act to explicitly classify posting “hate speech” online as discriminatory. The government posited that this provision would apply to discriminatory speech targeting race, religion, sexual orientation, and other protected grounds.

Moreover, the maximum penalties for hate propaganda offences in Sections 318 and 319 of the Criminal Code would be increased to life imprisonment from the current five years. The government asserted that these harsher penalties would reflect the gravity of the offences, with courts still retaining the discretion to impose proportional sentences in all cases.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has criticized the proposed legislation, urging the government to make significant amendments. The organization expressed concerns about potential limitations on free speech and criticized the bill’s ambiguous language used to define offences like “incitement to genocide” and “offences motivated by hatred.”

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