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Online harms against minors and other victims must be criminalized, not regulated: Poilievre

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OTTAWA -

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre says he prefers a tough-on-crime approach to online safety issues affecting young people, rather than trying to regulate them.

Poilievre delivered the message in a statement released the day after the Liberal government introuced its long-awaited Online Harms Act, which proposes setting up a new digital safety commission.

The bill would compel social media platforms to outline how they plan to reduce risk and require them to promptly remove certain content, including child sex abuse images and intimate images shared without consent.

Experts consulted by the government say it's a dramatic improvement from the proposal the Liberals put forward in 2021, which proposed requiring platforms to remove content flagged as harmful within 24 hours.

Critics warned that approach was overly broad and risked violating freedom of expression, which sent officials back to the drawing board.

The Liberals have instead proposed targeting only the most egregious content online, pushing platforms to reduce the risk of exposure to such material or face hefty fines, and requiring them to produce safety plans.

Giving companies incentive to minimize exposure to harmful content is the right way to go, said Taylor Owen, a McGill University professor who advised the government on the bill.

"That's probably the best way of balancing the real freedom of expression issues when regulating social media because it's the place we speak ... where we participate in public," Owen said.

While there are details to be debated, such as how the proposed new regulatory body would operate, the proposed bill "gets the big things right," he added.

Poilievre, however, disagrees.

Conservatives believe in enforcing laws against sexually victimizing children, and favour criminalizing "bullying a child online" and "inducing a child to harm themselves," he said in a statement Tuesday.

Existing criminal bans on the non-consensual sharing of intimate images "must be enforced and expanded," he added, including when it comes to deepfakes generated by artificial intelligence.

Such conduct should be handled by police and the courts, "not pushed off to new bureaucracy" that would fail to better protect children, Poilievre said.

"Common-sense Conservatives will protect our kids and punish criminals instead of creating more bureaucracy and censoring opinions."

He also accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of pushing legislation that seeks to ban the opinions of those he disagrees with.

Trudeau said last week that the focus of the legislation would be on protecting children, not censoring Canadians when they use the internet.

The former chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network is already warning parliamentarians against turning the bill's newly reintroduced section of the Canadian Human Rights Act into a game of political "yo-yo."

Bernie Farber, a founding member of the advocacy group, said he welcomes the Liberal government's effort to classify the dissemination of hate speech online as a form of discrimination.

The former Conservative government of Stephen Harper repealed that provision in 2013 out of concern it constituted a violation of free speech rights.

Poilievre did not specifically address that change in his statement Tuesday.

When it comes to the Canadian Human Rights Act, the bill seeks to define hate speech as "content of a communication that expresses detestation or vilification" of a person or groups "on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination."

The legislation says that would not include content that merely expresses "disdain or dislike" or that "discredits, humiliates, hurts or offends." It would also not apply to private communications.

That definition is considerably narrower than the original section of the act struck down by the Conservatives more than a decade ago.

It defined such speech as anything "likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt" on the basis of their race, gender, religion or other prohibited grounds of discrimination.

Farber, who was on the panel of experts that advised the government on its new legislation, said Tuesday that since that particular section of the Canadian Human Rights Act was repealed, social media has "exploded with hatred."

"If this section becomes a yo-yo, woe to us as a society," Farber said. "We need these kinds of guidelines, these kinds of walls, in order to better protect human beings."

If the new bill becomes law, anyone found responsible for a substantiated instance of online hate speech could be ordered to end the behaviour or be required to pay a victim upwards of $20,000 in compensation.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2024.

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