Report Mid-Year Meeting April 17 - 19, 2024

During this period, several journalistic and civil organizations have expressed concern over a bill introduced by the Government that would criminalize public discourse online and have a chilling effect on media and journalism.

Bill C-63 (The Online Harms Act) seeks to introduce harsher penalties for existing offenses. It would allow sentences of up to five years behind bars for hate propaganda, up from the current two years. A judge could also impose lifetime imprisonment for advocating genocide.

According to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, these moves are "draconian" and could stifle public discourse by "criminalizing political activism."

The legislation is landing in the middle of a debate generated by the Israel-Hamas war around what constitutes hate speech versus free speech and what should be considered the threshold for advocating genocide.

Bill C-63 also amends other existing statutes, including the Criminal Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act.

The Online Harms Act imposes three broad duties on social media platforms: to act responsibly by implementing measures to adequately mitigate the risk that users will be exposed to harmful content. To protect children by integrating design features that respect their protection. And to make non-consensually distributed intimate images (NCDII) and child sex abuse material (CSAM) inaccessible within 24 hours of being released.

The new framework will create a Digital Safety Commission to administer and enforce the Act, a Digital Safety Ombudsperson to support social media users and advocate for the public interest in online safety, and a Digital Safety Office to support the Commission and Ombudsman. People guilty of posting hate speech could be required to compensate victims up to $20,000.

Experts, however, say that the ability to make such a civil complaint – with a lower burden of proof than that required in a court of law – could disturb free speech.

Josh Dehaas, a lawyer with the Canadian Constitution Foundation, warned that the bill could silence people, from comedians to commentators, who fear being reported to the Human Rights Commission and are the subjects of massive fines.

The changes have been harshly criticized. Civil liberties groups and legal experts are voicing concerns about their potential chill on free speech.

The Bill also creates a new hate-crime offense, carrying penalties of up to life imprisonment, for people who "commit a hate-motivated crime." It defines a hate crime as an offense motivated by hatred, including those infringements based on race, gender identity or expression, religion, national or ethnic origin, color, mental or physical disability, sex, age, or sexual orientation.

The bill also raises the maximum punishment from five years to life imprisonment for advocating genocide.