Establishing new regulator for online harms law ‘will take some time,’ minister says

Establishing new regulator for online harms law 'will take some time,' minister says
Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada Arif Virani speaks to reporter ahead of a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.

Canada’s justice minister says it will “take some time” to create a new regulator to compel internet giants to better protect Canadians against online harms.

Arif Virani’s comments come as the Opposition Conservatives are criticizing the government’s plan to create a new regulatory scheme through its Online Harms Act as nothing more than an onerous bureaucracy.

The bill seeks to establish a new Digital Safety Commission of Canada, which would have the power to levy fines and evaluate companies’ digital safety plans.

It also proposes hiring an ombudsperson to hear Canadians’ concerns, which the government says would be supported by a new Digital Safety Office.

“We know that establishing a new commission … and an ombudsperson will take some time,” Virani said Tuesday on his way into the weekly cabinet meeting.

The minister was responding to a question about whether those bodies could be in place before the next federal election, which is scheduled to happen by October 2025.

During debate on the bill last week, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner had raised concerns about the timeline, saying she believed “the regulatory process is not going to happen prior to the next election.”

“Even if the bill is rammed through,” she told the House of Commons last Friday.

Rempel Garner also said she has asked the Parliamentary Budget Officer to analyze how much setting up those entities will cost.

In response to the concerns, Virani said the government has always known that creating a new regulatory body is going to take some time.

“It’s obvious,” he added.

RELATED: B.C. partners with 4 social media companies to increase online safety for kids

Experts who consulted with the government on an online harms regime signed an open letter last fall calling on legislation to be tabled after repeated promises from the Liberals.

The letter warned that children in Canada had fewer protections than their counterparts in places like the United Kingdom and Australia, which regulate platforms for the content they host.

When Virani tabled the bill earlier this year, he defended the amount of time it took, saying it was necessary to strike the right balance between protecting Canadians from harm while upholding the right to free expression.

Experts had raised the alarm about a proposal the government advanced in 2021 that would have potentially forced companies to take down content within a 24-hour window.

They warned that it ran the risk of platforms removing legal content and violating free expression.

Those criticisms sent the Liberals back to the drawing board.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first promised such legislation during the 2019 election campaign.

The issue picked up steam last October as police, along with Jewish and Muslim advocacy groups, reported a sharp increase in violent incidents and hateful rhetoric online in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.

Virani said Tuesday there are “different components” of the legislation.

He noted that certain parts of the bill, like changes to the Criminal Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act, would take effect “much more quickly” after the bill’s passage.

Those changes “target the specific amounts of division and hatred that we’re seeing in Canadian society,” he said.

Advocates and some legal experts, however, are critical of those measures, which include stiffer penalties for hate-related offences, saying the changes risk chilling free speech.

They are raising similar concerns about a proposed change to human-rights law that would allow Canadians to bring forward complaints about hate speech, saying it could lead to an influx of unfounded or malicious complaints.

By Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 11, 2024. 

The Canadian PressThe Canadian Press

Recent Stories

Send us your news tips and videos!