The government is still months away from introducing its promised online harms legislation after missing its self-imposed 100-day deadline in early February.
Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez shared the news on Wednesday as he announced a newly formed panel of experts who will advise his office as it drafts the new bill.
“We want to get this right — and you know what, together, we will get this right,” Rodriguez said.
However, getting it right will take far longer than the government had initially promised.
Ahead of the 2021 fall election, the Liberals promised that — if re-elected — they would “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.
That 100-day deadline came and went on Feb. 3 — just shy of two months ago — and now, the government says it will need to wait at least another two months to receive recommendations from its new advisory panel. Only then, Rodriguez said, will the department draft the bill.
“All the (advisory panel) meetings have to be held in the next two months, if I’m not mistaken,” he explained.
“Then we can take that information, work on the bill, and table it as soon as possible.”
Rodriguez insisted the government has been working on this issue “for a long time” and is not starting from scratch — although that’s exactly what some experts, including a few who have been named to this new advisory panel, have asked it to do.
That criticism came flooding in when, last June, the Liberals introduced Bill C-36. The bill was stopped in its tracks when Trudeau dissolved Parliament for last year’s federal election, but if it had passed, it would have given new recourse to people worried that another person would commit an offence motivated by “bias, prejudice or hate.”
That “hate” can be based on a number of factors — including race, sex or gender identity — and the aggrieved party would be able to take the issue to a provincial court, provided the attorney general consents.
The bill would have also amended the Canadian Human Rights Act to make it a “discriminatory practice” to communicate hate speech through the internet where it is “likely to foment detestation or vilification of an individual or group of individuals on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.”
Shortly after introducing the bill, the government published a “discussion guide” and a “technical paper” on its proposals for a future online anti-harm regime. The documents included a wide-ranging plan detailing which entities would be subject to the new rules, what types of harmful content would be regulated, and the rules for those regulated entities and new regulatory bodies.
“I found that proposal very problematic,” said Cara Zwibel, director of the fundamental freedoms project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, told Global News earlier this year.
Zwibel said that if the eventual online harms legislation that will be introduced is based on this technical paper, it would be “really disappointing.”
“A lot of groups spent time to let the government know where they saw problems and if none of that is considered kind of relevant, it really, really raises a question of why you would ever have a consultation process at all,” she said.
She wasn’t alone in her concerns. In a report published in September 2021, Vivek Krishnamurthy — a University of Ottawa law professor who was just named to the advisory panel — said Bill C-36 was “fundamentally flawed.”
“As Parliament reconvenes after the recent election, we call upon the new government to reconsider Canada’s approach to online regulation,” he wrote.
“Canada needs to reconsider its approach to platform regulation from the ground up. We urge the Government of Canada to engage in significant study and consultation with experts and stakeholders in Canada and beyond.”
That’s exactly what the government now plans to do. The expert advisory group on online safety includes a number of academics who are well-respected in the world of anti-hate and online harm research and advocacy.
The list includes Amarnath Amarasingam, a widely cited Canadian extremism researcher at Queen’s University; Bernie Farber, the chair of the Canada Anti-Hate Network; and Emily Laidlaw, the Canada Research Chair in Cybersecurity Law at the University of Calgary.
The full advisory panel is as follows:
- Amarnath Amarasingam, assistant professor, School of Religion, Queen’s University
- Bernie Farber, chair, Canada Anti-Hate Network
- Chanae Parsons, community activist and youth engagement specialist
- David Morin, full professor, faculty of arts and humanities, Université de Sherbrooke
- Emily Laidlaw, associate professor, faculty of law, University of Calgary
- Ghayda Hassan, professor of clinical psychology, Université du Québec à Montréal
- Heidi Tworek, associate professor, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs and History, University of British Columbia
- Lianna McDonald, executive director, Canadian Centre for Child Protection
- Pierre Trudel, professor, faculty of law, Université de Montréal
- Signa A. Daum Shanks, associate professor, faculty of law, University of Ottawa
- Taylor Owen, Beaverbrook Chair, Media, Ethics and Communications
- Vivek Krishnamurthy, Samuelson-Glushko Professor of Law, University of Ottawa
While the government has left its self-imposed deadline in the dust, Rodriguez was optimistic on Wednesday that the new bill will fix the flaws of its predecessor — whenever it’s ready. When pressed on whether he’s open to starting from scratch, the Canadian heritage minister replied that the government is “open” to “all ideas.”
“The only thing we want is to do the right thing,” Rodriguez said
“(We want) to make it right.”