Trudeau Defends ‘Online Harms’ Bill Before Tabling, Says It’s Needed to Protect Children

Trudeau Defends ‘Online Harms’ Bill Before Tabling, Says It’s Needed to Protect Children
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a press conference in Saint John, N.B., on Jan. 17, 2024. (The Canadian Press/Michael Hawkins)
William Crooks

The Liberal government has not tabled its “online harms” bill yet, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is already pushing back against criticism from the Conservatives.

After a housing announcement in Cape Breton on Feb. 22, Mr. Trudeau responded to comments made the day prior by Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre, whom he accused of “spreading lies.”

Mr. Poilievre has described the upcoming Liberal online harms bill as Mr. Trudeau’s “latest attack on freedom of expression.”

The prime minister spoke about the bill unprompted after the press conference had been declared over. He insisted the purpose of the bill is to protect children online.

“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,” he said.

No firm timetable for the tabling of the bill has been announced, with different sources mentioning April or as soon as next week. It will focus on narrow instances of content removal, particularly concerning child sexual abuse and non-consensual image sharing, an unnamed senior government official told The Canadian Press.

The upcoming legislation is also expected to establish a new ombudsperson to address public concerns about online content and introduce a new regulatory role to oversee the conduct of internet platforms.

Meanwhile, Mr. Poilievre says the Liberal government intends to criminalize speech disapproved by the prime minister. “What does Justin Trudeau mean when he says the word ‘hate speech?’ He means speech he hates,” he told reporters on Feb. 21.

The Conservatives have opposed major legislative efforts to reshape the information environment, such as Bill C-18 and C-11. They have called the latter, which revamped the Broadcasting Act, a “censorship law.” It gives the federal broadcasting regulator additional powers to supervise online content.

Mr. Trudeau has accused Mr. Poilievre of jumping the gun on the upcoming online harms bill.

“The fact that Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives, without reading the legislation, without knowing what’s in the legislation, are not just opposing it, but spreading lies about it, is concerning,” he said in Cape Breton.

“I think this is yet another example of Pierre Poilievre being irresponsible and not serious and choosing to play politics instead of actually focusing on what matters,” he added.

A previous attempt by the Liberals to tackle online hate failed when Mr. Trudeau called an early election in 2021. The Liberal government missed its own deadline to table a new bill within the first 100 days of its new mandate.

Liberals have opposed Bill S-210 being currently debated in the House of Commons, which would require age verification to access pornographic websites. Conservatives are supporting the bill, and a few Liberal MPs as well.

Mr. Trudeau said he doesn’t support this approach of adults needing to provide personal information to “sketchy websites.”

The Canadian Press contributed to this report.