Published February 26, 2024

Online harms: Liberals seek to create digital safety commission, new ombudsperson

Online harms bill - CP

By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa

The Liberal government is planning to create a "digital safety commission of Canada" to regulate social media companies to take steps to reduce the risk of online harms to their users. 

Justice Minister Arif Virani tabled the much-anticipated Online Harms Act on Monday afternoon, and creating a new regulator is just one of the new measures being proposed. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has long promised to better protect Canadians, especially youth, from online harms. But his ministers repeatedly said developing such legislation was complicated. 

The new legislation, titled Bill C-63, seeks to create a new regulator for social media services and establish an ombudsperson to advocate for users who have concerns about online safety. 

It covers harms including the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, including deepfakes created by artificial intelligence, as well as content used to cyberbully, urge self-harm or incite violence, terrorism or hatred. 

The law seeks to give the new digital safety commission power to "order removal of content that sexually victimizes a child or revictimizes a survivor," as well as intimate images shared without an individual's consent 

It says companies, which must generally abide by a "duty to act responsibly," must remove such material within 24 hours.

Under the new bill, users could file a complaint with the platform itself or to the new regulator.

The Liberals are also amending the Criminal Code to introduce stiffer punishments for existing hate propaganda offences and amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include online hate speech as a form of discrimination. 

The mother of a British Columbia teen who died by suicide after being targeted by online sextortion is already pleading with federal lawmakers to pass the bill. 

Carol Todd, whose daughter Amanda posted a video on YouTube detailing her ordeal before she died in 2012, said she worries that opposition parties will vote against the bill and wants them to communicate.

Todd said in an interview before the legislation was tabled that it has been frustrating not to have seen a bill guarding against online sextortion and cyberbullying earlier.

But she said: "Sometimes you have to wait for something good."

She pointed to how similar laws already exist in the European Union, the United Kingdom and Australia. 

Canada cannot afford to wait any longer to see such legislation in place, Todd said, predicting it could save many lives from the increased prevalence of cyberbullying and sextortion. 

"It’s the lives of our kids," she said. 

"I'm talking about everyday life, and just something that happens online — that can happen in a split second — can make a young person spiral so deeply."

She said she is hopeful that the legislation becomes another part of Amanda's legacy. Her YouTube video helped many parents and youth to have important conversations about protecting themselves in an online setting, she said.

"Amanda's legacy continues to live on, and I think that it's a teaching experience for all of us," added Todd.

"And if she were watching from wherever, she would be proud of that."

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has called on Trudeau for weeks to introduce the long-awaited bill, pointing to the case of 12-year-old Carson Cleland of Prince George, B.C.

Last October, police said he was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound after his family said he had fallen victim to online sextortion.

In the lead-up to the bill being tabled, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre signalled his opposition to it, saying he believed Trudeau would target online speech. 

"This is very important legislation," government House leader Steven MacKinnon said at a news conference on Monday. "The government has worked on it for a long, long time."

He said many parents know the dangers posed to children, and he thinks "any responsible government has to act." 

— With files from Chuck Chiang in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2024

Banner image via The Canadian Press

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