Feds try to tackle online harms

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The current bill is a softer version of the 2019 proposal because the government doesn’t want to be accused of stifling free speech. According to Arif Virani, the awful stuff will still be lawful. But now people will have to think twice before telling me to hang myself.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on March 4, 2024.

OTTAWA—Gatineau’s first woman mayor stepped down on Feb. 22, joining 800 other municipal politicians in Quebec who’ve quit, citing death threats and a hostile political climate.

In a tearful press conference, France Bélisle said she had thought long and hard on before making the decision to terminate her two-and-a-half-year term.

Bélisle did not specify the nature of the threats that prompted her departure, but social media is currently a hotbed for vicious attacks.

As a woman, she probably got more than her share of misogyny.

She is not alone. The following is a verbatim message I received last week following one of my posts on Twitter regarding the use of toilets by transgendered individuals. “Sheila, you’re a disgusting, old, ugly, dyke-looking, treasonous piece of shit who should be thrown into the sea with Trudeau. Fuck you, Fuck Trudeau & the LGBT+ pride freaks. Rap the sick LGBT flag around your neck, tie it to a tree branch, and do humanity a favor. Can’t wait for Freedom/Justice Convoy.”

The federal government finally stepped in last week to introduce legislation governing online harms. Justice Minister Arif Virani specifically targeted three obligations, including “a duty to protect children, a duty to act responsibly and the duty to remove the most egregious content.”

Virani was surrounded by supporters of the proposed legislation, including mothers of teenagers on both coasts whose daughters were bullied online to the point where they committed suicide.

The proposed legislation is far narrower than an earlier version tabled in 2019.

The original bill died when the election was called.

The updated version includes the creation of a digital safety commission, a five-person panel with the power to enforce the rules. The commission would also provide a venue for investigation of complaints about online violations targeted at bullying children and/or posting private images without consent.

Carol Todd, the mother of Amanda Todd, a British Columbia teenager who committed suicide because of online threats, said the legislation was a long time coming.

She was joined at the press conference by the mother of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons. According to Leah Parsons, her daughter was driven to her death after being gang-raped and having the images posted online.

The proposed law requires social media platforms to have mechanisms in place to remove two kinds of offensive material: that which sexually victimizes children, and the posting of intimate images without consent.

Platforms have 24 hours to remove offending posts or face financial punishments. Fines are to be linked to the size and profitability of the platforms.

Virani insists the legislation would not affect free speech on the internet, however awful it might be. So social media attacks on politicians like the former mayor of Gatineau will not likely be stopped.

However, the newly-created commission will have the power to oversee the legislation, which will also mean that hate speech on the internet will be facing legal scrutiny and review.

The former Facebook data scientist who went public on its refusal to delete nefarious content endangering children lauded the proposed legislation.

Interviewed on CTV, Frances Haugen said it was among the best pieces of legislation on the matter she has seen.

But that didn’t stop Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre from opposing the legislation before he had even read it.

Poilievre immediately labelled it “Justin Trudeau’s latest attack on free speech,” and characterized the legislation as “woke authoritarian agenda.”

Social media opponents moved quickly online to post pictures of the Liberal Party covered in a Nazi flag, claiming the legislation is a first step toward a takeover of the whole country.

Poilievre attacked the prime minister personally, saying because Trudeau partied in “blackface” he had no right to speak on the issue of hate speech.

He vowed to kill the bill before it was introduced, but was silent following Virani’s press conference.

Poilievre himself has spoken out in support of a Senate bill that would require online age verification to access pornography, so he obviously sees some benefit in protecting minors on the internet.

It is impossible to see how his party would benefit from opposing this bill, but apparently his hatred of the prime minister appears to be more politically motivating than hate speech on the internet.

The current bill is a softer version of the 2019 proposal precisely because the government does not want to fall prey to accusations of stifling free speech.

According to Virani, the awful stuff will still be lawful.

But now people will have to think twice before telling me to hang myself.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.