Ottawa mulling new ombudsperson to field concerns over online harms: source

Click to play video: 'Trudeau says bill to protect kids from online harm is coming next week'
Trudeau says bill to protect kids from online harm is coming next week
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at an Edmonton news conference on Wednesday that legislation to protect Canadians against online harm is coming next week, which he says will be focused on protecting children – Feb 21, 2024

The federal government’s evolving plan to help protect Canadians from harm online could include a new ombudsperson to field public concerns and a regulator that would oversee the conduct of internet platforms.

The new positions would be established as a part of the forthcoming online-harms legislation, which the government is currently hoping to announce by April, said one senior official with knowledge of the plan.

“It’s very nearly ready to go,” said the source, who has seen a draft of the legislation. The source spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss details that have yet to be made public.

Online safety and technology experts have for months been pressuring the governing Liberals to present their long-promised legislation aimed at protecting Canadians, and in particular minors, from online harms.

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Canadian children are currently less protected than kids living in the United Kingdom, the European Union and Australia, where such laws currently exist, they warn.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first promised the measure during the 2019 election campaign, but a bill targeting online hate speech died on the order paper when he triggered an early election in 2021.

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Justice Minister Arif Virani would be the one to introduce the new bill, which he has vowed would strike the right balance between offering protections to Canadians while upholding the right of freedom of expression.

Privacy experts and civil liberties groups roundly criticized the government’s proposal from 2021, which included a requirement that gave online platforms just 24 hours to remove content flagged as harmful.

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Such a threshold would have risked encouraging companies to take an overly cautious approach, removing acceptable material pre-emptively for fear of running afoul of the rules, they warned.

Organizations like the National Council of Canadian Muslims also expressed concerns that efforts to target terrorist-related online content — one of the bill’s stated goals, according to Trudeau — could disproportionately impact its members.

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The government ultimately went back to the drawing board and assembled a new group of experts to advise it on how best to proceed.

That advice included establishing a regulatory role that would hold online platforms accountable for the content they host and impose penalties on services that fail to do so.

The proposed regulator would have a mandate to ensure online giants comply with federal law, the official said.

The government is also planning to establish a new ombudsperson whose job would be to field concerns from ordinary Canadians who encounter problematic material or scenarios online.

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In a recent speech to the Canadian Bar Association, Virani said he was confident the government could legislate measures to promote an online world where “users can express themselves without feeling threatened or fuelling hate.”

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“It also means requiring online services to address and mitigate the risk of such harmful content on their platforms, as well as to give users tools and resources to report harmful content and seek help,” he said.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has already signalled his concerns with the idea of a new regulator, because it would raise questions about who the government would appoint to fill such a role.

He has accused the Liberals of promoting censorship through previous laws that sought to regulate social media giants.

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