Home Politics Federal Government’s new Online Safety Bill Aims to Tackle Internet Hate, and Experts are Saying it’s a Good First Step

Federal Government’s new Online Safety Bill Aims to Tackle Internet Hate, and Experts are Saying it’s a Good First Step

Younger Canadians are disproportionately exposed to online hate content, research shows

by Scott Martin
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The Online Harms Act aims to tackle a growing tide of hate online (OTR/Scott Martin)

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Experts are welcoming new federal legislation that provides official channels for Canadians to file complaints about online hate and increases jail sentences for those who spread hate via the internet.  

The new Online Harms Act is intended to counter both child sexual exploitation material online and hateful extremist content that has spiked in recent years, disproportionately affecting young people. If the legislation passes, it will also clearly define hate in legal terms and hold social platforms accountable for hate content hosted on their services.

Dr. Barbara Perry, director at the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, called the legislation “an important step forward.”  

New laws, however, aren’t the end of the conversation, she added. “Legislation is a blunt tool,” Perry said, describing the need for additional measures. “The introduction of this bill also provides the space in which we can talk about the needs of victims, both individual and collective.”

Recently published data by Statistics Canada reveals that 71 per cent of young Canadians reported seeing online hate content in the past year, compared to the national average of 49 per cent. One in eight young people also reported seeing online content that could incite hate and violence on a daily basis.

Mohammed Hashim, chief executive officer of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, said the organization’s polling reflects this reality.

“We’ve done polling on this a number of times in terms of how people are experiencing hate and it’s very clear – young people, women and women of colour are the three highest demographics that receive hate the most.”

Hashim said that the legislation is a substantial step towards a framework for tackling hate in the digital era. He specifically pointed to the section that defines hate in the legal sense.

“I think the (new) standalone hate crime sections are incredibly important,” Hashim said. “Some of the challenges that we see within the policing environment is the ability for them to be able to have clarity in how things are charged, and how things are prosecuted.”

Maria, a student at Toronto Metropolitan University who asked that her name be withheld due to privacy concerns, said she’s seen a rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism since October of last year. The legislation, she said, is a good move to combat hate online as well as its consequences in real life.

“I feel like social media is like a big part of society now,”  she said. “It influences a lot of people. So I think a bill would actually be worth it.”

Aisha, another Toronto Metropolitan student who asked to use her first name for privacy concerns, agrees. “(Hateful content) kind of influences our thoughts,” she said. Twitter in particular seems to carry a disproportionate amount of hate, she added, “just because it’s a lot less restricted in terms of language” compared to other platforms such as Instagram, which have more safety tools.

Among other measures, the Online Harms Act contains changes to the Criminal Code including: 

  • a legal definition for “hatred” that draws from previous Supreme Court rulings.
  • a new standalone hate crime offense. 
  • increased penalties for the promotion of genocide from the current five-year maximum punishment to life in prison

If passed, the bill would create three new entities to allow Canadians to report online hate. These include a Digital Safety Commission consisting of five members who will enforce legislative changes and a Digital Safety Office that will provide administrative support to the Commission.  Finally, a Digital Safety Ombudsperson will gather information from users, publish public reports and consult with users and victims. The legislation would also define “hate speech” in the Canadian Human Rights Act and allow Canadians to submit hate-related complaints to the Human Rights Commission. 

The legislation passed its first reading on February 26 and is currently in its second reading.

Scott Martin is a reporter for On The Record, Winter 2024 with a focus on politics.

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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