Heritage Department restarting consultations on online harms bill

Federal Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is set to restart countrywide consultations Friday on the government's proposed online harms legislation after a group of experts convened by his department disagreed on the best path forward.

Academics could not come to consensus on how to define 'harm,' among other issues

Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez at a news conference in February — the deadline by which the government initially promised it would reintroduce online harms legislation. But it is now embarking on a second set of consultations, armed with some dissenting expert opinion. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Federal Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is set to restart countrywide consultations Friday on the government's proposed online harms legislation after a group of experts convened by his department disagreed on the best path forward.

Over the course of a 10-page summary report, released Friday along with the announcement, it was revealed the 12 academics Ottawa gathered earlier this spring could not come to a consensus on whether software companies should be forced to proactively monitor or remove harmful content, whether private messages should be included in the legislation, and how to define "harm" itself. 

"Some experts argued that legislation should move away from an approach that identifies specific types of harmful content. Instead, they argued that harm could be defined in a broader way, such as harm to a specific segment of the population, like children, seniors, or minority groups," the report, which did not attribute any of the opinions to specific experts, explained.

It also noted the reason  for caution by some academics, saying "new categories of harm may surface in the future and that specifying types of harmful content risks legislation becoming quickly outdated."

Liberals face challenges policing online content

The document is just the latest hint at the challenges the Liberals face in trying to police harmful online content.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet first introduced legislation in the last days of his previous government, but Bill C-36 died on the order paper when he called an election in August 2021. 

During that campaign, his party promised a new form of the bill would be introduced within 100 days if they formed government, but that deadline came and went in February. 

Experts agreed that child pornography, one of the five proposed categories of harmful content, does not benefit from Canadian Charter protections. (Shutterstock / Empirephotostock)

What Ottawa did release that month was another report, summarizing the discontent it heard in initial consultations by some community organizations and tech giants about some of its proposals. There were concerns the likes of Google or Facebook would have to flag problematic content to law enforcement, but also reservations about how the law would be too soft on unco-operative companies, or how it would crack down on freedom of speech as well. 

Prior to that first round of talks, the government was looking to define five categories of harmful content: hate speech, terrorist content, incitement to violence, child sexual exploitation and the non-consensual sharing of intimate images.

The current document notes some experts pushed for further specifics on how to treat these categories, while others viewed them as "deeply problematic," expressing for instance "issues with the definition of terrorism as it almost exclusively deals with Islamic terror and omits other forms of terrorism."

A government source who spoke to CBC News on condition they not be named because they were not authorized to speak about the report said they were not surprised at the lack of consensus among the group.

"If there were agreement on the more complex issues, that would tell us that we convened the wrong experts." 

The source said the government has not made up its mind on any of the key issues yet, and that is the point of further consultations: to see what Canadians make of the panel's insights. 

Content removal another flashpoint

The document notes some experts' concern with removing any kind of content other than that which explicitly calls for violence or child sexual exploitation content.

For the latter, they noted "context simply does not matter with such material," while "hate speech may enjoy Charter protection in certain contexts." 

An initial proposal by the government would have seen tech giants forced to remove harmful content and also report it to law enforcement. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, some academics wanted to target a wider range, expressing a preference to "err on the side of caution."

Online monitoring was also a point of disagreement, as some experts again pointed to the Charter, saying the idea "introduces risks to fundamental rights and freedoms." 

Meanwhile, others emphasized services "should be compelled to proactively monitor their platforms, as such monitoring, in many cases, could effectively prevent a violent attack."

The experts also pointed out "a low level of trust in law enforcement for some marginalized communities," and how forcing tech giants to flag content to police may "increase harmful police interactions" [...] when no crime has been committed." 

WATCH | Justice Minister David Lametti on Ottawa's effort against online hate:

Lametti discusses new online anti-hate speech bill

2 years ago
Duration 1:42
Federal Minister of Justice David Lametti talks about a new online anti-hate speech bill introduced by the government in the final minutes of the House of Commons session before the summer break.

The Heritage Department will spend months in meetings across the country over the course of the summer, with Rodriguez starting in Charlottetown and Moncton today, with a range of organizations including groups representing women, Muslims, public schools, law enforcement and LGBTQ groups.

The department does not have a timeline for when it will reintroduce legislation.

The government source who spoke to CBC News said the bill is third on the Heritage Department's list, after it has already introduced bills about online streaming and compensation to news outlets

"I think it's the main course. The other two are the appetizers," the source said. 


Raffy Boudjikanian

Senior reporter

Raffy Boudjikanian is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He has also worked in Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal for the public broadcaster.