Government of Canada Unveils New Legislation to Combat Online Harm, Prioritizing Child Safety

  • Ingrid Jones
  • Canada
  • February 27, 2024

Image credit, Minister Arif Virani Social Media feed

Arif Virani, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, took a significant step in ensuring the safety of Canadians by introducing Bill C-63, the Online Harms Act. This new legislation aims to address a myriad of risks, particularly the sexual exploitation of children, self-harm promotion, violence incitement, threats to safety, and the propagation of hate.

In recent years, the digital realm has become a breeding ground for malicious activities that transcend the virtual world, leading to real-world consequences, including tragic and fatal outcomes. The Online Harms Act is designed to create a robust legislative and regulatory framework that compels digital platforms, including livestreaming and adult content services, to adopt measures preventing harm in seven specific categories of harmful content.

Minister Arif Virani emphasized the need for accountability, stating, “For too long, we have tolerated a system where online platforms have offloaded their responsibilities onto parents, expecting them to protect their kids from harms that platforms create or amplify.”

The key provisions of Bill C-63 include:

  1. New Legislative and Regulatory Framework: To adopt measures reducing the risk of harm across seven categories of harmful content. Strict penalties will be imposed for non-compliance.
  2. Clear Reporting Mechanisms: Online platforms must provide clear and accessible ways to flag harmful content and block users. Special safety measures tailored for children are also mandatory, along with other measures to reduce exposure to harmful content.
  3. Combatting Hatred: Stronger laws will be introduced to protect Canadians from hatred both online and offline. This includes defining “hatred” in the Criminal Code, increasing penalties for hate propaganda offences, establishing a standalone hate crime offence, and providing additional remedies for online hate speech in the Canadian Human Rights Act.
  4. Enhanced Protection Against Child Exploitation: Amendments to the Act respecting the mandatory reporting of Internet child pornography will be made to better safeguard young people.
  5. Creation of Digital Safety Commission: A new Digital Safety Commission will be established to oversee and enforce the Online Harms Act’s regulatory framework. Additionally, a Digital Safety Ombudsperson will be appointed to act as a resource and advocate for the public interest in systemic online safety issues.

Minister Virani highlighted the urgency of the legislation, stating, “Children are vulnerable online. They need to be protected from online sexual exploitation, hate, and cyberbullying. Now more than ever, especially given the evolving capabilities of AI, online platforms must take responsibility for addressing harmful content and creating a digital world where everyone can participate safely and freely. This legislation does just that.”

The proposed legislation comes after extensive consultations, including public hearings, an Expert Advisory Group on Safety, a Citizens’ Assembly on Democratic Expression, and 22 online and virtual roundtables across Canada. The government’s commitment to upholding Canadians’ constitutional right to freedom of expression is reiterated, emphasizing the need for safer social media environments, particularly for children.