The Liberal government’s proposed Online Harms Act targets harmful online content by proposing sweeping changes to both policy and governance. However, the politics of the issue – and the tendency of political parties and their leaders to use emotionally-charged issues as political wedge pieces  – risks drowning out the chance for an inclusive, evidence-driven, earnest conversation about the harm created by online hate.  

Both Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre have hastened to personalized rhetoric to jab at one another in connection with this bill. Each is trying to undermine the other’s arguments through character-based attacks. Poilievre decided he was against the bill even before it was introduced in the House of Commons. He stated his objections to “Justin Trudeau’s woke authoritarian agenda” and suggested it is “ironic” that Trudeau, who “spent the first half of his adult life as a practicing racist, who dressed up in hideous racist costumes so many times he says he can’t remember them all, should then be the arbiter of what constitutes hate. What he should actually do is look into his own heart and ask himself why he was such a hateful racist.” Trudeau claims that Poilievre’s response to the legislation is all about “spreading lies” and “is yet another example of Pierre Poilievre being irresponsible and not serious and choosing to play politics instead of actually focusing on what matters, which is how to keep our kids safe.” Each wants to portray himself as the “good guy” or the protagonist and the other as the “bad guy” or the antagonist. Each vies to set the dominant narrative through vilification rather than analysis. They are both preaching to their own choir, of course, and offering nothing by way of meaningful dialogue on the substance of the bill.  We all lose as a result. 

Amidst the political clamour, there is a need for policy cover with respect to online harm as well as a corresponding infrastructure to see it through. The question is not whether government action is necessary but, instead, whether the bill in front of the House of Commons achieves the proper balance between free expression and protection from harm. The Liberals seek to fortify themselves against accusations of censorship by narrowing the scope of the legislation to the most odious, objectionable types of online behaviour that, surely, no one in their right and reasonable mind would object to prohibiting. In particular, the bill would ban the non-consensual sharing of intimate images (including deep fakes), as well as content that sexually victimizes a child or revictimizes a survivor, content that bullies a child and/or encourages them to self-harm, and content that incites violent extremism, terrorism, violence, or hatred. The bill also proposes a new governance framework to implement and enforce the new rules. The power to define and address online hate would be given to non-political, independent entities, which would give additional cover against accusations of government censorship. For example, the bill would create a new Digital Safety Commission consisting of five members, appointed by cabinet, who would have the power to order that harmful content be removed from the internet within 24 hours of posting. There would also be a new ombudsperson to advocate on behalf of users and make recommendations for best practices. The law would make social media platforms responsible for reporting instances of child sex abuse images and would generally beef up the duties of such platforms to protect users from harmful content.  These measures would include continuous risk assessment and the publication of digital safety plans. 

As with anything else, the devil resides in the details. Online harm is a particularly tricky thing to regulate for a whole host of reasons, including the complexity around defining harm in the first place. The real power of non-state actors in this space makes it difficult for governments to make rules for them. Digital platforms like Meta are huge multinational corporations that the government has vowed to “stand up to” on behalf of Canadian users. If Canadian policy is seen as inhospitable by these entities, they might decide not to bother catering to the tiny Canadian market. The Liberals scored a win towards the end of 2023 when they reached a deal with Google that will see the corporation pay $100 million annually to publishers while continuing to provide access to Canadian news content.  

As the bill works its way through Parliament, tech giants will have the chance to weigh in – as will the families of the victims of online abuse. This is the kind of bill that can get swallowed up by political virtue-signalling while simultaneously being laden down by technical considerations that only a few experts understand. However, the most compelling and impactful evidence will be the heartbreaking testimony of families whose children have been victimized online. It is every parent’s nightmare for their child to suffer from bullying, ridicule, and threats of exposure from an online predator, and for that monster to go unpunished. 

This is only the beginning of the conversation about danger in the digital world. The bill is long-awaited and requires the closest scrutiny from legislators, stakeholders, and the public at large. Canadians deserve to have parliamentarians park their partisan agendas and lean into this in earnest.