Canada unveils draft law to curb online harms

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Canada's liberal government on Monday introduced draft legislation that aims to protect the population, notably children, from hate and other online harms -- and proposes up to life imprisonment for those who advocate genocide.

It would increase criminal penalties for spreading hate on social media platforms -- including the ramping up from a five year sentence for promoting genocide -- and toughen requirements for reporting of child pornography.

A new digital safety regulator would be tasked with enforcing the rules that target companies including Facebook, X and Pornhub.

Under bill C-63, Canadians would also be empowered to flag harmful content and request its swift removal directly, or to file complaints against persons posting hate speech at a human rights tribunal, which could order compensation for victims.

Social media companies, meanwhile, could be forced to add parental controls that limit content or features available to children, such as the ability to communicate with strangers.

"A growing body of evidence shows that online harms are a huge and growing problem. People are saying and doing things online that we would never tolerate in the physical world," a senior government official told a briefing.

The legislation was needed, the official said, because social media companies "continue to shirk and evade responsibility for meaningfully tackling harm on their platforms."

Much of the regulations are similar to the EU's Digital Services Act and Britain's Online Safety Law, both enacted last year.

The Canadian legislation comes as the US Supreme Court considers whether a pair of state laws that limit content moderation on social media are constitutional.

Those laws were passed by Florida and Texas in a bid to stem what American conservatives see as political bias by big tech companies on the major platforms.

Previous versions of Canada's bill, first proposed in 2021, were criticized by privacy and civil liberties groups for stifling free speech.

Conservative opposition leader Pierre Poilievre has panned its latest incarnation too as an "attack on freedom of expression."

According to government data, four in 10 Canadians are regularly exposed to online hate.

Federal police said they have seen a 1,000-fold increase in reporting of child exploitation over the past decade, while a recent study cited by Ottawa found nearly two-thirds of women and girls in Canada face online abuse or harassment on a monthly basis.