Online Harms Bill to Be Introduced by Justice Minister Next Week

Online Harms Bill to Be Introduced by Justice Minister Next Week
Justice Minister Arif Virani during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 12, 2024. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)
William Crooks

The Liberal government’s third major piece of legislation to regulate internet content, this time addressing online harms, will be tabled next week.

The new bill sponsored by Justice Minister Arif Virani appears on the Feb. 26 notice paper for the House of Commons. It was previously rumoured to be introduced as late as April.

The proposed legislation will create the Online Harms Act, as well as modify other existing laws. The bill seeks to amend the Criminal Code, the Canadian Human Rights Act, legislation requiring the reporting of internet child pornography by persons who provide an internet service, and other yet-to-be-specified laws.

In addition, the legislation aims to regulate sexually explicit deepfakes, establish a new ombudsperson to handle public complaints about online content, and introduce a regulatory function to monitor the behaviour of internet platforms.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has insisted in recent days that the bill will protect children, while Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre has accused the government of tabling additional censorship legislation.

“We need to do a better job as a society, keeping kids safe online, keeping them safe from child sexual exploitation, from bullying, and the kinds of mental health distress that far too many of our young people are going through,” Mr. Trudeau said Feb. 22 about the bill.

Mr. Poilievre accused the Liberal government of trying to criminalize speech the prime minister disapproves of.

“What does Justin Trudeau mean when he says the word ‘hate speech?’ He means speech he hates,” he said during a Feb. 21 press conference.

The Conservatives have consistently opposed legislative attempts to alter the information landscape, including Bills C-18 and C-11. They labelled Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act that revises the Broadcasting Act, a “censorship law.” The bill gave the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission increased authority over online content. Bill C-18, the Online News Act, requires tech companies to make payments to the news sector.

Mr. Virani, whose department has taken over the bill from the Heritage department, defended the upcoming legislation in a mid-December interview with Canadian Press.

“Where I don’t want this bill to go is down some sort of path where it looks like people are trying to tell you what to think, or how to criticize people,” Mr. Virani said. “That’s absolutely not what we’re talking about.”

In 2013, the Conservative government repealed Section 13 of the Human Rights Act, known as the “hate speech provision.” In 2019, there was talk of the Liberals reviving  some version of it.

In 2021, Mr. Virani informed The National Post he was working on a new “online harms bill” while serving as parliamentary secretary to Justice Minister David Lametti. He said the legislation would feature a component from the justice department specifically codifying a new definition of online hate into law.