Polite Canada Logo

An Attack on Free Speech

Canada has recently introduced Bill C-63, known as the Online Harms Act, aiming to establish a new structure for addressing harmful content on social media platforms. However, the proposed changes to the Criminal Code are fundamentally flawed and are facing profound criticism for their perceived imbalance between protecting freedom of expression and combating hate speech. Critics argue that the proposed penalties are excessively severe and could potentially suppress free speech, labeling them as “draconian” and warning against the overreach of government power.

In the legislative pipeline since 2021, Canada’s Online Harms Act has emerged as Bill C-63 in the House of Commons, where it presents a complex picture with deeply concerning elements. Bill C-63 establishes several duties for social media platforms with significant user bases:

1. Duty to act responsibly: Platforms must develop and implement risk mitigation plans to combat various types of harmful content, such as child sexual abuse material and content inciting violence or hatred.

2. Narrow takedown duty: Platforms must promptly remove reported content related to child abuse or non-consensual adult material, with avenues for appeal and human review.

3. Duty to protect children: Platforms catering to minors must implement features to safeguard their well-being.

4. Additional protective measures: These include user empowerment tools, content reporting systems, and efforts to identify bot-generated harmful content.

To enforce these measures, Bill C-63 establishes a Digital Safety governance system comprising a commission, ombudsman, and supporting office.

The Good:

The Online Harms Act aims to create a fair and equitable regulatory environment while promoting informed and empathetic responses to digital issues. It emphasizes transparency and accountability by requiring platforms to develop and share risk management strategies. This fosters trust among users and encourages platforms to take responsibility for their content. Additionally, the Act empowers academic researchers by granting them access to anonymised platform data, enabling them to conduct independent studies and gain insights into online challenges.

The Bad:

Bill C-63 has a significant number of issues. One notable concern lies in the amendments it proposes to the Criminal Code and Human Rights Act, introducing severe penalties up to life imprisonment alongside hefty fines for online hate speech. What is more concerning is the inclusion of what some have dubbed “pre-crime” provisions, which allow authorities to impose restrictions on individuals deemed “likely” to commit online hate offenses, even if they have never previously been convicted of any crimes. This has led to concerns about the potential stifling of lawful speech and has sparked debates about the intent of these measures and their implications on basic rights and freedoms.

Those against the bill claim that because of Bill C-63, Canadian citizens may soon face the prospect of being confined by court order even if they have not committed any crime. The bill focuses on combating ‘hate’ speech on the internet, but, as is often the case with government initiatives targeting online behaviour, it contains severe measures. For instance, if passed, the legislation would enable individuals to report instances of ‘hate speech’ online to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Those found guilty of making offensive remarks could be compelled to compensate victims with amounts reaching up to $20,000 – with all of that said, what really defines ‘hate speech’? It’s a broad and slippery slope.

While addressing hate speech is important, Bill C-63 poses a severe risk of overreach due to its expansive scope and potential for infringing on civil liberties. The bill, aimed at combating online hate speech, grants authorities broad powers to censor and regulate digital content. While the intention to address hate speech is commendable, there is an argument to be made that the bill lacks clear definitions and safeguards, leaving ample room for abuse and suppression of free expression. Moreover, the vague language and sweeping authority granted to authorities raise concerns about government overreach and the erosion of fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech and privacy. Without adequate checks and balances, Bill C-63 will pave the way for censorship and suppression of dissenting voices, undermining Canada’s democratic principles.

Canada’s charter has a provision for “Freedom of expression,” further explained as “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.” If saying something on the internet can potentially result in hefty fines to as much as a life sentence in prison, do we really have freedom of speech?

Learn More

Opinion from Christine Van Geyn, Special to National Post: Under Bill C-63, an online comment could cost you thousands
An international perspective from Jane Stannus, The Spectator: Canada’s Orwellian online harms Bill