Online bill could criminalize free speech, critics say

Two proposed bills, the Online Harms Act (Bill C-63) and Bill C-367, have critics suggesting that if passed, they could threaten the freedom to express beliefs and convictions online and in the public square.

Social media harms targeted include intimate content that is communicated without consent, sexually victimizes a child or revictimizes a survivor, foments hatred, incites violent extremism or terrorism, incites violence, is used to bully a child or induces a child to harm themselves.

Peter Menzies, a senior fellow of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said the Online Harms Act would introduce “fairly sensibly, a duty of care on social media companies” to outlaw harmful activity on its platforms. However, he said Bill C-63 is constructed as “a Trojan horse, and they smuggled in a lot of really problematic materials in terms of amendments to the Criminal Code and the Human Rights Act.”

The former vice-chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) said two measures in the bill are particularly problematic.

“It could allow for people to be placed under house arrest because they might commit hate,” said Menzies. “In other words, by saying something instead of doing something…

“The next big problem is huge in terms of how it would affect how people communicate,” continued Menzies. “That is by empowering the Canadian Human Rights Commission to take complaints based on things people say. You can get accused of discrimination based on what you say instead of what you do. That will result in absolute floods of complaints by various groups and others trying to shut down their political opponents.”

Menzies imagines that individuals who cite particular Bible passages in debating hot-button topics could be subject to complaints. He also envisioned grievances against Christians and others who challenge the widespread mass graves narrative and decry the vandalism or arson of at least 100 houses of worship since 2021.

A Digital Safety Commission with three to five commissioners will be established to administer and mandate the act. A Digital Safety Office and a Digital Safety Ombudsperson will support this entity.

Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, wrote in a blog post that the commission’s “powers are incredibly broad-ranging.” He stated this body can “issue rulings on making content inaccessible, conduct investigations, demand any information it wants from regulated services, hold hearings that under certain circumstances can be closed to the public (the default is open), establish regulations and codes of conduct.”

Some, however, see the benefits. Julia Drydyk, executive director of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, said Bill C-63 is “an important step.”

“Unfortunately, children in Canada are seriously at risk of being targeted, lured and sexually exploited online,” said Drydyk. “It’s crucial to prioritize the best interests of children when regulating their online activities. Online platforms must prioritize children’s safety and be held accountable for any harm resulting from inadequate protection mechanisms.”

Meanwhile, Yves-François Blanchet, leader of the Bloc Québécois, introduced Bill C-367, an act to combat hatred and antiSemitism. If passed, certain protections enshrined in Paragraph 319 of the Criminal Code would be repealed. No longer would a person be safe from being convicted of a hatred or anti-Semitism offence if, “in good faith,” he or she “expressed or attempted to establish by an argument an opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a belief in a religious text.”

Phil Horgan, president and general counsel of the Catholic Civil Rights League, wrote, “the effort to repeal such possible defences is worthy of a quick dismissal at the earliest possible opportunity.”

“An effort to exclude sincerely held religious beliefs would conceivably hold Pope Francis open to hate speech prosecution, with his very recent comments in opposition to gender ideology, for example,” said Horgan. “Potentially any Catholic could face hate speech prosecutions merely for taking a religiously based or scripturally referenced opposition to transgenderism or perhaps to sexual practices deemed sinful to the Church. “Is it the intention of Parliament to hold the Catechism of the Catholic Church a hate speech screed?”

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