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Bill to tackle online hate 'absolute priority' for feds, but advocate decries delays

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Justice Minister Arif Virani says legislation is coming soon to try and tackle online hate. Virani holds a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Legislation to tackle online hate remains an "absolute priority," the federal justice minister said Tuesday as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau underscored the need for Canadians to respect each other's freedom of expression. 

Arif Virani said the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has led to a sharp rise in hateful online rhetoric, some of it manifesting in violent attacks on religious and community groupsin cities such as Toronto and Montreal. 

"That's not what we need in this country, and I think an online hate bill can help to address that," Virani said before the government's weekly cabinet meeting in Ottawa. 

Virani's desk is the latest place the long-awaited bill has landed after the Liberals first promised in the 2019 election campaign to bring in legislation to combat hate speech, terrorist content and sexual abuse material. 

"I'm deeply disappointed," said Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, who served on a panel of experts the governmentassembled in spring 2022 to advise on its development. 

Farber said there is a "dire need" for Ottawa to better protect Canadians from the hate they see online, which is the preferred means of dissemination for those looking to spread bigoted rhetoric and ideas.  

"It's a pretty frustrating situation."

It is no longer a matter of if Canadians can become radicalized by the content they consume online, but when, Farber added.

He cited the recent first-degree murder conviction of Nathaniel Veltman, who killed four members of a Muslim family with a truck in 2021. Court heard he would spend hours a day online consuming far-right material. 

In 2019, Trudeau inked into the mandate letter of his then-heritage minister to introduce regulations for social media platforms to compel them to remove all illegal content, ranging from hate speech to child abuse images, within 24 hours. 

By June 2021, just as the House of Commons was set to break for summer, the Liberals tabled a bill designed to protect Canadians from online hate speech. It would have amended both the Criminal Code and Youth Criminal Justice Act, and allow groups to file hate-speech complaints under the Canadian Human Rights Act.

That bill was never passed; Trudeau promised to table a new version within 100 days of re-forming government in September 2021, but it never happened. Instead, the government assembled another expert panel to provide recommendations for a future bill. 

Since the concept for the bill was first introduced, the government has pointed to global events like the COVID-19 pandemic and storming of Capitol Hill in January 2021 as flashpoints that illustrate the need to tackle the spread of online hate and racism.

Emily Laidlaw, a professor at the University of Calgary whose research focuses on online harms and served on that panel along with Farber, said the legislation is likely to be "highly controversial," since it touches on free speech and forces lawmakers to choose which online harms warrant restriction. 

"It's time to have that discussion," Laidlaw said. "This is extraordinarily complicated legislation."

Both she and Farber say in order to be effective, the bill will have to create a regulator to deal with social media companies and ensure they assume responsibility for hateful rhetoric that appears on their platforms. 

That means having the power to levy fines hefty enough to prod them to take action, Farber said.

Meta and Google didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, but both companies have policies that address misinformation. 

Until recently, the legislation was mainly in the hands of the federal Heritage Department, with support from Justice. Those roles became reversed after a recent cabinet shuffle.

"It will be an important shared responsibility led by Justice Canada with the support of Canadian Heritage. Minister Virani will introduce legislation in due course," Trudeau's office confirmed in a recent statement. 

Virani acknowledged Tuesday the importance of tabling a new bill, but warned that regulating online platforms would be more complicated than making changes to criminal law. Hewouldn't say whether the new legislation would be introduced in the House of Commons before the holiday break, likely in mid-December. 

"My hope is that it's tabled soon, because I'm hearing that from stakeholders and I'm hearing that from concerned Canadians."

While the legislation is complex, Virani pledged it remains an "absolute priority" for him and other members of cabinet.

Jewish and Muslim organizations alike say it's vital for the Liberals to properly define what constitutes online harm. Prominent Jewish groups have argued such a law is needed to force social-media giants to remove antisemitic comments. 

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has been in discussions with the government about the legislation. Chief executive Shimon Koffler Fogel said he wants to see "a clear, transparent protocol" to allow platforms to deal with users who spread such rhetoric. 

B'nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn called it a consistent problem with social media and said companies are not doing enough to take immediate action. 

Fogel cited his organization's repeated attempts to have X, formerly Twitter, suspend the account of Laith Marouf, a consultant who previously worked for the federal government. 

In a letter to X owner Elon Musk, the centre accused Marouf of using the platform to make "violent, antisemitic, and hateful remarks."

In a statement to The Canadian Press, Marouf accused the centre of trying to "silence their critics," and pointed to the existence of hate propaganda laws which he said it knows "protect criticism of their supremacist political ideology and colonial project."

The National Council of Canadian Muslims has also reported seeing a sharp uptick in hate-filled comments against Muslims and others of Arabic descent since the war broke out last month.

Stephen Brown, the organization's CEO, said it has had many conversations with those in government about the legislation, saying it must start from the basis of clearly defining "what is considered hateful in Canada."

"We also oppose anything that would prevent legitimate criticism of foreign governments or anything that would prevent legitimate expression of political views."

Brown said the council has seen users face harassment for posting certain messages, such as calling for a ceasefire or expressing support for Palestinians. Some are even finding their accounts suspended, he added.

"It's becoming more increasingly difficult to express support for Palestinians online," he said. "How are the social media platforms handling it?"

Before Tuesday's meeting, Trudeau called the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia in Canada and around the world "really scary," warning that it puts the possibility of a two-state solution in the Middle East at risk.

"People are forgetting a little bit that we're a country that protects the freedom of expression, that protects liberty of conscience, that respects and supports people even when we disagree with them," he said.

"We have to remember that just waving a Palestinian flag is not automatically antisemitism. And someone expressing grief for hostages taken is not an endorsement of dead civilians."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2023. 

Stephanie Taylor and Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press