Bill C-36: The Online Harms Bill

What is Bill C-36?

Bill C-36 is a piece of legislation introduced by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government on February 26, 2024, also known as the Online Harms Act. It proposes to make chances to the Criminal Code, the Canadian Human Rights Act, and other laws, to legislate content on social media platforms. It was first introduced in June 2021 but died because of the federal election called in 2021.

The government claims the bill is to “protect children.”The legislation, according to the government, is also intended to target so-called online “hate speech,” violence, bullying, and “harmful online content,” despite the fact that the Criminal Code already prohibits a number of illegal activities including content that harms children, plus outlaws criminal harassment, and additionally bans publication of intimate photographs without consent.

The current bill has not yet been passed, it has been proposed. The Liberal government will require the support of the NDP party to pass the bill due to being a minority government in Parliament.

Overview of the Bill’s contents

The Bill targets seven kinds of harmful content, three of which are specific to children:

content that sexually victimizes a child or revictimizes a survivor,
content used to bully a child, and
content that induces a child to harm themselves.

The four other harms listed are:

intimate content communicated without consent,
content that foments hatred,
content that incites violent extremism or terrorism, and
content that incites violence.

Who does the Bill regulate?

The Bill as it is written regulates social media services, defined as “a website or application that is accessible in Canada, the primary purpose of which is to facilitate interprovincial or international online communication among users of the website or application by enabling them to access and share content.”

What are the penalties as written in the proposed bill?

Failure to comply may result in a maximum administrative monetary penalty of 6% of the gross global revenue of the entity deemed to have violated the Act or $10 million, whichever is greater.

Operators convicted of an offense are subject to a maximum penalty of 8% of the operator’s gross global revenue or $25 million, whichever is greater. Individuals found guilty of violating the proposed bill if passed, could be required to pay as much as $50,000 to the government, plus up to $20,000 to the person(s) deemed harmed. Content deemed “hate speech” could be punishable by life in prison.

The Bill establishes a regulatory body and more bureaucracy

Under the bill, a new body would be formed-a Digital Safety Commission-which will be responsible for policing online content. The Commission would be able to audit, issue compliance orders, and penalize social media services as well as potentially infringe on a free press. It could also order the removal of content that sexually victimizes a child or revictimizes a survivor and intimate content communicated without consent. Further, it could set online safety standards, engage in research, and develop resources for the public.

The bill would also create a Digital Safety Office and a Digital Safety Ombudsman. Social media companies could be fined excessively if they do not “minimize the risk that users of the service will be exposed to harmful content.” Social media companies would also be forced to allow users to flag allegedly “harmful” content, and complaints could be reported anonymously.

The bill changes the Criminal Code

The bill as proposed would add a definition for hatred, and create a new “hate crime offense” for crimes motivated by hatred on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, language, color, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

The legislation also proposes to penalize individuals by issuing a peace bond against them before they commit an offense, if it is believed they might commit a hate crime or hate propaganda offense.

Hate speech is defined as “the content of a communication that expresses detestation or vilification of an individual or group of individuals on the basis of prohibited grounds of discrimination.” It further clarifies that it is not detestation or vilification if the content solely “expresses disdain or dislike or it discredits, humiliates, hurts or offends.”

The prohibited grounds are race, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability or conviction for an offense for which a pardon has been granted.

The bill would also make it against the Canadian Human Rights Act to communicate “hate speech” online.

What has been the response to the bill?

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Prime Minister Trudeau shouldn’t be deciding what constitutes hate speech online and expressed concerns the legislation would be an “attack on freedom of expression.”

“What does Justin Trudeau mean when he says the words ‘hate speech’? He means the speech he hates,” Mr. Poilievre said. “You can assume he will ban all of that.”

Mr. Poilievre said it was part of “Justin Trudeau’s woke authoritarian agenda.”

Psychologist and outspoken personality Jordan Peterson called the bill a “full frontal assault on free speech.”

“We are now producing in Canada a new bureaucracy to monitor all public communication for “harm,” which can be defined in any way the new bureaucracy sees fit,” said Dr. Peterson.

According to Dr. Peterson, the Digital Safety Commission or any of its representatives “will be able to enter a place of business without a warrant and take and/or reproduce anything there — and with full cooperation, or else.”

“Second, note the powers of the Commission: its edicts will have the full force of a Canadian Federal court, despite the fact that it will not be bound (this is literally in the bill) by ‘any legal or technical rules of evidence’,” he notes.

“The problem, as it always is, is ‘who defines hate?'”

Dr. Peterson suggests the bill would allow an individual to be reported by anyone, anywhere, to the Canadian Human Rights Commission not only for anything posted after this bill comes into existence, but for anything an individual ever posted anywhere.

“This, combined with the much lower evidentiary standard employed in the course of these proceedings, absolutely guarantees that anyone with any contentious opinions whatsoever will be immediately made subject to endless lawfare — particularly by the devious radicals and psychopaths who have already learned to weaponize such ill-conceived systems of governance and policing.”

Dr. Peterson concludes, “Hatred is defined in this bill as an ’emotion.’”

The Liberal government has said the bill is reasonable and won’t infringe on free speech.

“Where I don’t want this bill to go is down some sort of path where it looks like people are trying to tell you what to think, or how to criticize people,” federal Justice Minister Arif Virani told The Canadian Press in December 2023.

“That’s absolutely not what we’re talking about. It is definitely also about curbing hatred,” said Mr. Virani.

Criticism of the bill

Critics of the bill say the legislation as proposed is overly broad, punitive, and authoritarian, contains unclear and ambiguous language, and has the potential for abuse with censorship online.

There are also concerns that the bill will suppress free speech that may be offensive, but which is not illegal. The bill also allows for excessive punishment and infringements on personal liberty pre-emptively against an individual who is believed might commit a speech crime, even if no such incident has occured.

What should citizens do?

Canadians should write to their members of federal parliament and senators and object to this new law and vote against the legislation and its overbroad attempt to police the internet and so-called “hateful content” online.