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Trudeau promised online hate reform by Feb. 3. Experts say it’s unlikely, but urge action

Click to play video: 'Health-care workers call for help to stop online hate' Health-care workers call for help to stop online hate
WATCH: As Caryn Lieberman reports, while many health-care workers have attracted followers online during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve also become targets of social media hate – Nov 12, 2021

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promised timeline for online hate reforms is nearly up, with experts saying it appears “unlikely” the government will table the bill before Feb. 3.

And while online hate has been getting worse for years, some suggest a surge over recent weeks drives home the need to crack down on social media companies for the content they allow on their platforms.

“It doesn’t look like the government’s hitting the 100-day promise at this point,” said Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.

“It’s time to make it happen.”

The lack of clear and consistent enforcement for hateful content online means “incalculable harm has already been done” to people and communities who are being targeted, Balgord said.

But, he said, while some of the metaphorical horses may be out of the barn, “there’s still horses left in that barn, and we should still shut that door.”

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Read more: Canada needs to explicitly ban swastikas, ‘loathsome’ hate symbols: NDP MP

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned in 2020 that neo-Nazis and white supremacists are among the extremist groups that are using the collective social trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories aimed at radicalizing others.

CSIS noted in that report that the extremist language being used frequently blames the pandemic on “Jews, China, immigrants, the government and societal elites.”

There has also been a sharp rise in anti-Semitism over recent years.

The “urgency” of fighting online hate is not new, Richard Marceau, a former Bloc Quebecois MP and now vice president of external affairs with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said. The issue has been increasingly in the spotlight as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and after the display of Nazi flags and swastikas at a demonstration in Ottawa over the weekend.

Read more: Here's what Canada is -- and is not -- doing about the dark side of social media

While the event was billed by many of the participants as “peaceful,” some of the organizers have well-documented ties to extremist and white supremacist groups online.

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“It seems to take more time than than they expected. What we do not have any doubt of, however, is the desire of the government to come up with something fairly soon,” Marceau said of the promised reforms, noting it is possible to respect freedom of expression while cracking down on hate.

“So while we want it fast, we also want it to be well-done.”

Click to play video: 'Condemnation of Nazi symbols at the Ottawa vaccine mandate protest' Condemnation of Nazi symbols at the Ottawa vaccine mandate protest
Condemnation of Nazi symbols at the Ottawa vaccine mandate protest – Feb 1, 2022

The Liberal platform vowed to “introduce legislation within its first 100 days to combat serious forms of harmful online content, specifically hate speech, terrorist content, content that incites violence, child sexual abuse material and the non-consensual distribution of intimate images.”

“This would make sure that social media platforms and other online services are held accountable for the content that they host,” the Liberal platform said.

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The platform also included a vow to “strengthen the Canada Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to more effectively combat online hate.”

Read more: Ottawa lays out proposal for digital safety watchdogs to crack down on hate online

Trudeau was re-elected with a minority government in September 2021 and while consultations on proposed online hate reforms closed at the end of that month, there’s been no word since on when the government plans to put the proposals forward in legislation.

The 100-day timeline began on the day the cabinet was sworn in, which means it ends on Feb. 3.

A spokesperson for Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez did not say whether the government plans to live up to that promise.

“The overwhelming majority of Canadians agree the Government needs to take action to confront radicalization, violence, and hate speech. If it’s illegal in person, it should be illegal online,” said press secretary Laura Scaffidi in an email.

“However, Canadians have also raised concerns around the complexity of this issue. We’re moving as quickly as possible alongside stakeholders and Canadians to get this done right.”

Balgord said while there are elements of the original proposals that have been challenged, such as a 24-hour takedown requirement for social media platforms when hateful content is flagged to them, there are still ways to move ahead quickly to get mechanisms like an ombudsperson for the platforms in place.

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“It needs to happen now,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Canada announces multi-faceted approach to combat online hate speech, crime with Bill C-36' Canada announces multi-faceted approach to combat online hate speech, crime with Bill C-36
Canada announces multi-faceted approach to combat online hate speech, crime with Bill C-36 – Jun 23, 2021

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