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Online hate speech must not become political ‘yo-yo,’ anti-hate expert warns

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OTTAWA — The former chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network is warning parliamentarians against turning a 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The former Conservative government of Stephen Harper repealed that provision in 2013 out of concern it constituted a violation of free speech rights.

The office of Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who has spoken out against the government’s new plan to regulate against online harms, has not said whether he would seek to remove the provision. 

Justice Minister Arif Virani tabled legislation Monday that would allow a new regulatory body to compel social media companies to target certain types of harmful content.

It would also usher in stiffer punishments for hate offences under the Criminal Code. 

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 bill 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government on its new legislation, said Tuesday that since that particular section of the Canadian Human Rights Act was repealed, social media has “exploded with hatred.”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 stop their behavior or pay a victim upwards of $20,000 in compensation. 

Broadly speaking, the bill appears to strike the right balance between protecting  freedom of expression and pushing social media companies to reduce the risks posed to minors, say other experts consulted by the government.

The government took to heart the criticism it received for an earlier version of the bill, and opted this time around to focus on the most egregious content online and its potential consequences for young people, Virani said. 

That includes requiring platforms to remove sexual images that could be used to exploit a child, as well as intimate images shared without an individual’s consent. 

“We reflected really deeply on this bill,” Virani said. 

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

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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