The federal government may appoint a new ombudsman to handle public concerns regarding the Liberals’ forthcoming online harms legislation as well as a new regulator to monitor people’s conduct on the internet, despite pushback from critics.

Justice Minister Arif Virani assured Canadians that the new bill will be the right balance between protecting Canadians from online harm without restricting their right to freedom of expression, however many critics remain unconvinced. 

Civil liberties groups had already taken issue with the initial 2021 proposal Bill C-36, which included a provision that online platforms had no more than 24 hours to remove content deemed to be harmful. 

While speaking with True North’s Andrew Lawton, counsel for the Canadian Constitution Foundation Josh Dehaas said “anything that resembles Bill C-36” will lead to all kinds of legal challenges. 

“It would not be constitutional to do something that extreme, to have $20,000 fines for things that you say on the internet that somebody finds offensive,” said Dehaas on the Andrew Lawton Show. “We really hope that that’s not what they come up with.”

“If they go with 24 hour takedowns, that is just going to lead Facebook and other internet service providers to take down anything that could put them at risk or make them liable, so that would be a huge free speech issue too that we would have to try and attack.”

Online platforms would naturally take a risk averse approach when it comes to any form of contentious content, likely preemptively removing content before it gets flagged for being “harmful.”   

“The other concern I have is that companies like Facebook might just leave Canada,” said Dehaas. “Right now you have similar legislation in the European Union and they’re telling Twitter all the time, ‘If you don’t comply with our requirements and get rid of what we consider misinformation then we might kick Twitter out of Europe.’ Canada is a lot smaller and Twitter probably cares a lot less about us.”

“If Twitter is faced with some sort of legislation that says they have a duty of care to take down information that is so-called misinformation or discriminatory, then they might just pull out at some point,“ he added.

Dehaas warned that if the legislation allows for too much subjectivity, then Canadians will be at the mercy of the ombudsman’s taste and views regarding what is appropriate internet content versus what should be censored. 

“These are government appointees, and what they are offended by might be perfectly legitimate speech,” said Dehaas. 

Religious organizations, like the National Council of Canadian Muslims have also expressed worries that Muslims could be disproportionately affected by the new legislation as targets of terrorist-related online content.

The Trudeau government pledged to have the new legislation introduced by April.

“It’s very nearly ready to go,” a senior Liberal official told CTV News on the condition of anonymity.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first promised to implement internet regulation legislation during the 2019 election. A bill targeting online hate speech was later presented but died on the order paper after Trudeau called an early election in 2021.

The proposed regulator would be charged with ensuring that online platforms comply with federal law and the new ombudsman would deal with citizens’ complaints regarding contentious online material. 

Virani told the Canadian Bar Association that he was confident that the new measures would promote the kind of internet landscape where “users can express themselves without feeling threatened or fuelling hate.”

“It also means requiring online services to address and mitigate the risk of such harmful content on their platforms, as well as to give users tools and resources to report harmful content and seek help,” said Virani during a recent speech.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre criticized the notion of appointing a new regulator, citing concerns over how the government would select someone for the role.

He also accused the Trudeau government of attempting to censor Canadians through regulating big tech companies in the past. 

Last year, Canada’s Privy Council conducted a survey to see how Canadians viewed the government’s role in censoring online “misinformation” and found that the majority of respondents disapproved of it.  

“Though all participants reported feeling some degree of concern, some also expressed reservations about the potential for censorship in any attempt by the federal government to prevent the proliferation of false information online,” reads the report.