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Tue, Jun

Free Speech v. Kinder Speech

VOICES

ACCORDING TO LIZ - North of the border, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has tabled its long-awaited legislation to better protect Canadians, particularly youth, against “online harms.” 

In the media, both social and corporate, some American pundits expressed shock that our northern neighbor could deign to restrict freedom of speech, something so ingrained in our national psyche. 

Instead of moving away from countless, ultimately futile, Congressional hearings and other attempts to target specific bees in activists’ bonnets, and suggesting the United States pursue its own version of this overall approach to protecting people, these Americans are now up in arms. 

But, guess what? The American construct of free speech is not recognized in Canada. 

Oh, Canadians may talk about it after decades of listening to American programming and to American talking-head commentary but, by and large, they support the underpinnings of a kinder, gentler society. 

One where the greatest good for the greater number supersedes absolute rights for the individual, a concept promulgated by Americans and their celebration of individual success. 

As archetypal cowboys opening the frontier and running rampant over indigenous rights; in their political heroes from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, to the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. And Donald Trump. 

Freedom of expression as guaranteed under the Canadian Bill of Rights is quite a different kettle of fish than Americans’ First Amendment freedoms, and parses the nuances between being in poor taste and harmful: what is awful will still be allowed but what harms people will be unlawful and subject to sanction. 

In Canada the rights of individuals participating in a society will be protected, not the cowboy theatrics of a Trump or Truth Social. A significant departure from accepting the abuses unfortunately cooked into Americans’ First Amendment freedom protections. 

Changes to multiple laws will ensure that the onus will be on the purveyor and not the victim. 

The Online Harms Act, or Bill C-63 was tabled in Parliament on February 26, 2024 having been in the making since 2021, and sets out a new vision for safer and more inclusive participation online for all Canadians. 

In a report published by The Canadian Press upon release of the proposed text of the Online Harms Act and widely reported in the Canadian press, following are the five key elements of this well-thought-out and highly complex legislation. Legislation which strives to protect Canadians from the Wild West of an internet increasingly overrun by rogue elements. 

1. Target specific types of harmful content

The government wants to target the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, including deepfakes generated by artificial intelligence and content that “sexually victimizes a child or revictimizes a survivor.” The bill would also cover anything online that is used to bully a child or urge them to commit self-harm. 

Content that incites violent extremism or terrorism, along with material that incites violence or stirs hatred, would also be subject to the new law. 

There is overlap with five categories of content the government proposed tackling in a 2021 consultation document. One key difference: the earlier plan included provisions around hate speech writ large, whereas the new bill does not. 

2. Add fresh responsibilities for online platforms

The bill would usher in new rules for online platforms, one of which is broadly defined as the “duty to act responsibly.” Companies would be expected to reduce exposure to harmful content by “continuously” assessing risks, developing mitigation strategies and providing tools for users to flag harmful content. 

The legislation would also require platforms to publish “digital safety plans” to outline measures to reduce the risk of exposing users to harmful content and track their effectiveness. Companies would also have to share data with researchers. 

The government says the new rules would apply to social media sites, “user-uploaded adult content” and “live streaming services” with a certain number of users, a threshold that would be spelled out in detail in coming regulations. Cabinet would have the power to target smaller services “when they pose a significant risk of harm.” 

3. Create a new regulator and a new ombudsperson

The government seeks to create a new “digital safety commission” comprised of five individuals appointed by cabinet. It would have the power to order the removal within 24 hours of images shared without an individual's consent, as well as content that sexually victimizes a child or survivor of abuse. 

The commission would be separate from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which regulates traditional broadcasters. “Frivolous” complaints would be screened out. 

A new “independent” ombudsperson, also appointed by cabinet, would advocate on behalf of users. It would provide information about complaints they wish to file and make recommendations to social media services, the regulator and the government. 

4. Strengthen reporting around child pornography

The government also plans to amend a current law that says it is mandatory for internet services to report instances of child sex abuse images on the internet. Changes would apply those rules to social media platforms and “create authority to centralize mandatory reporting” of such offenses “through a designated law enforcement body.” 

The amendment would also extend how long such data can be preserved to assist in police investigations. It would also extend to five years the current two-year limitation period for prosecution. 

5. Change the Canadian Human Rights Act and add stiffer sentences for hate crimes

The government plans to add online hate speech as a form of discrimination under the law and allow people to file complaints against individuals posting such content to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. 

It would also make changes to the Criminal Code, including by increasing the maximum punishment for four hate propaganda offenses. 

For example, someone found guilty of advocating genocide could face life imprisonment, up from five years in prison. 

The government is also looking to create a new hate crime offense that could be applied to every other offence, instead of only listing it as an aggravating factor during sentencing. 

Are these regulations so onerous? 

Canada’s Online Harms Act may be far from perfect in many eyes, but those crazy Canucks have done a heckuva job when compared to what is happening in these here United States.

Americans may want to remember that, even though speech might be considered free, it should be used to educate and uplift. When used to hurt, belittle or disparage, the consequences for both the purveyor and those to whom it is addressed can be overwhelming. 

Words once released – verbally, on paper, or online – can never be recalled.

(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions.  In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)

 

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