Liberals draw ire over long-overdue bill
Legislation has been stalled as file switches to a new federal department
The federal government is drawing sharp criticism from the experts it appointed to shape a long-overdue bill that would combat dangerous content online as the Israel-Hamas war continues to spark an onslaught of hate on social media platforms. “It’s horribly frustrating. The only tool in our anti-hate tool chest … is a series of laws around hate that in many cases, will not have any effect on online speech,” said Bernie Farber, a member of Ottawa’s advisory panel and chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “There’s a real sense of disappointment within our group that here we are, not just two years later without any action taken, but at a time when it is so desperately needed.” The Liberal government promised to introduce an online harms bill by early 2022 at the latest, as part of a promise that would see the legislation tabled within 100 days of the Liberals forming government after the 2021 election. The proposed law, which has yet to materialize, is expected to address issues like hate speech, incitements to violence and child sexual exploitation, and rule on how social media platforms should be held to account and whether victims should be able to seek recourse for being targeted by such content. Canadian Heritage has already conducted cross-country consultations about the bill, hearing from experts, community groups and stakeholders over how to eradicate and penalize harmful content while still protecting free speech. Its 12member expert panel concluded last summer that while it was imperative the government act quickly on the issue, addressing it would be a complex task. In late June, former heritage minister Pablo Rodriguez told the Star he hoped the legislation would land this fall. But right now, the bill — which has been touted by the government as a solution to online vitriol like the rampant antisemitism and Islamophobia brought on by the Israel-Hamas conflict — is stalled, caught up in bureaucratic red tape that is blocking it from imminently seeing the light of day. Government sources, who spoke to the Star on the condition they not be named, say the file changed hands from heritage to the justice department shortly after July’s cabinet shuffle. While Justice Minister Arif Virani is now set to take the lead on the file, heritage will still be involved in a smaller capacity. But behind the scenes of government machinery, shifting a file from one department to another is not an immediate process, one source said. The transfer to Virani has not officially happened, the source said. Since the Israel-Hamas war began in early October, social media users have been exposed to a scourge of hateful and racist commentary. Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has said it has noted a “troubling surge in antisemitic discourse” online. The National Council of Canadian Muslims has also begun sharing examples of Islamophobia being pushed on social media. Both advocacy groups have long called for legislation to tamp down the problem. At an antisemitism summit convened by CIJA last month, Virani acknowledged how easily online hate can morph into real-world violence, and said he was committed to tackling online hate by introducing legislation on the subject.