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Canada's long-awaited online harms bill is coming. Here's what we know

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Years in the making, the federal government is poised to introduce a new piece of legislation on Monday aimed at addressing a series of online harms.

The bill will have a significant focus on protecting children with specific obligations for platforms, according to a senior government source who was not authorized to speak publicly about details yet to be made public.

It will also seek to address non-consensual AI porn deepfakes, though the legislation is not expected to provide law enforcement with new powers, the source said.

Put on the notice paper for Monday's return to the House of Commons, the bill proposes to enact the "Online Harms Act" and advance amendments to the Criminal Code, the Canadian Human Rights Act, as well as laws regarding the mandatory reporting of internet child pornography.

This is not the first time the Liberals have tried to advance legislation to this effect, but after experts panned the first proposal as flawed, the government went back to the drawing board to reshape its plans amid an evolving online environment.

Government officials from the Department of Canadian Heritage and the Department of Justice will hold a technical briefing for reporters on Monday afternoon, followed by a press conference led by Justice Minister Arif Virani at 5:15 p.m. ET, according to a media advisory. 

Ahead of the bill's tabling, here's what you need to know.

What online harms will be included?

While the full scope of the legislation won't be revealed until it is made public upon tabling in the House of Commons, it is expected to be an evolved version of the Liberals' initial proposal, to include an emphasis on harms to youth.

Originally, the government set out wanting to impose rules and regulations that would require online platforms to be more accountable for, and transparent about five kinds of harmful content: hate speech, terrorist content, incitement to violence, the sharing of non-consensual images, and child exploitation.

In addition to these areas of focus, according to the senior source CTV News spoke with, concerns were also raised during consultations about kids experiencing cyberbullying and inciting self-harm. Those two areas are expected to be addressed through this legislation.

Part of the legislation's measures to tackle the non-consensual sharing of intimate images will include cracking down on the rising trend of sexually explicit deepfakes, and allowing for specific takedown requirements of what's become known as "revenge porn," as has been reported.

The source said despite the recent calls for action to address this area, sparked by international headlines related to fake images circulating of mega star Taylor Swift, the government has been working on legislative amendments to this effect, for some time.

Which minister is taking the lead?

While this file has been in the hands of successive ministers of heritage, and the Canadian Heritage department, Virani will be taking the lead on the incoming bill, rather than Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge.

Earlier this week, Virani was quietly sworn-in as "Minister of State (Online Harms)" specifically "to assist the Minister of Canadian Heritage in the carrying out that minister's responsibilities."

This, from a machinery of government perspective, is likely to allow the justice minister to continue to tap into Canadian Heritage departmental resources as the bill winds its way through Parliament.

Before being shuffled into the portfolio, St-Onge spoke to CTV News last year about how she's personally seen the need for legislation to better protect people online.

It remains to be seen how the two ministers will collaborate on shepherding the legislation through the House and Senate, which will include fielding parliamentarians' questions, and potentially testifying at committee.

What's the backstory on this bill?

This bill originated with a 2019 mandate letter request from the prime minister to then-heritage minister Steven Guilbeault to: "Create new regulations for social media platforms, starting with a requirement that all platforms remove illegal content."

Under his time heading the file, this resulted in two main actions. First, the introduction of what was known as Bill C-36, which was tabled at the eleventh hour of the last Parliament and focused on hate speech. It died on the order paper and has never been revisited.

The second move came two weeks before Trudeau called the 2021 election, when the government presented a "technical discussion paper" on a proposed legislative framework to tackle five forms of harmful online content.

Among the ideas floated in the government's initial proposal were implementing a 24-hour takedown requirement for content deemed harmful; compelling platforms to provide data on their algorithms and provide a rationale for when action is taken on flagged posts; and installing a new system for Canadians to appeal platforms' decisions around content moderation.

After facing significant pushback to this discussion paper, during the 2021 campaign, the Liberals promised to move on a "balanced and targeted" online harms bill within 100 days of the last election. After the vote, Pablo Rodriguez took over the portfolio and went back to the drawing board.

This reworking included tapping a panel of experts and specialists in platform governance, content regulation, civil liberties, tech regulation, and national security to help guide the government on what the bill should and shouldn't include. 

In the summer of 2022, Rodriguez and top officials from his department travelled across the country to hold panel discussions with stakeholders and representatives from minority groups. As of then, sources were expressing optimism that the bill would be ready for early 2023.

Months later and still no legislation in sight, experts that helped craft the bill penned an open letter indicating that after soliciting successive forms of consultation, it was time for legislation to be brought forward, noting the lacking protections for Canadian kids compared to other countries with similar laws already in place.

Will this be a political hot potato?

If the exchange of jabs between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre this week are any indication, this legislation has the potential of becoming a lightning rod.

Heading into the tabling of this bill after two previous rounds of highly contentious debates around their online news and online streaming bills, the government is mindful of the potential for an even bigger fight when it comes to online harms.

Already attempting to dispel the Conservative line of attack that this bill is centrally about censorship, Trudeau told reporters this week that the legislation will be "very specifically focused on protecting kids and not on censoring the internet."

"We know, and everyone can agree that kids are vulnerable online… We need to do a better job as a society of protecting our kids online, the way we protect them in school yards," Trudeau said. "Now how to go about that is a very careful balance."

This came in response to Poilievre prepositioning his party as opposed to what he called the "latest attack on freedom of expression," from the prime minister, who he accused of viewing hate speech as "speech he hates."

Noting Poilievre has yet to see the legislation, the prime minister said his approach was not responsible.

"Leadership is about dealing in facts, actually reading a piece of legislation before he starts telling people what he thinks it does, and then having a rigorous debate in Parliament," Trudeau said.

The prime minister also recently pushed back at NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who linked the October 2023 death of a 12-year-old boy in British Columbia who died by suicide after being a victim of online sextortion, with the Liberals' delayed action on the online harms legislation.

Both Singh and Poilievre have put their support behind a separate but potentially conflicting piece of legislation from the Senate that would require age verification online to access explicit sites like Pornhub.

The Liberals are opposed to what is known as Bill S-210, with the source CTV News spoke indicating that Virani's legislation will take a more overarching approach to protections for minors across online sites.

IN DEPTH

Who is supporting, opposing new online harms bill?

Now that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's sweeping online harms legislation is before Parliament, allowing key stakeholders, major platforms, and Canadians with direct personal experience with abuse to dig in and see what's being proposed, reaction is streaming in. CTVNews.ca has rounded up reaction, and here's how Bill C-63 is going over.

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