The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has called for significant amendments to the Liberal government’s Online Harms Act, Bill C-63.

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, Executive Director and General Counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, announced that the bill needs to be examined in greater detail.

“Our initial assessment reveals that the bill includes overbroad violations of expressive freedom, privacy, protest rights, and liberty. These must be rectified before the bill is passed into law,” said Mendelsohn Aviv. 

Despite the CCLA’s aversion to the bill’s current state, the association said it endorses the declared purposes of upholding public safety, protecting children, and supporting marginalized communities.

The Liberal government’s Online Harms Act, unveiled by Justice Minister Arif Virani, targets a range of harmful content, including materials that incite violent extremism, promote violence, or promote hatred. 

The proposed bill seeks to modify the Criminal Code to strengthen the prosecution of hate crimes, introducing penalties that could extend to life imprisonment for certain crimes.

The Liberals also plan to establish a new organization to enforce rules surrounding harmful online content. This body, comprising the Digital Safety Commission, the Digital Safety Ombudsperson, and the Digital Safety Office, will work to ensure compliance with regulations and can order online platforms to take down content. 

The CCLA said that a troubling aspect of Bill C-63 is the authority granted to the body, allowing government appointees to interpret the law, make up new rules, enforce them, and then serve as judge, jury, and executioner. 

“Granting such sweeping powers to one body undermines the fundamental principle of democratic accountability,” said Mendelsohn Aviv.

Another troubling aspect raised by the CCLA is the bill’s provisions, including warrantless electronic data searches. The association said that these provisions pose significant threats to privacy rights.

“The bill provides for unacceptable intrusions into individuals’ digital lives,” said Mendelsohn Aviv.

In anticipation of the bill’s release, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre said he would oppose the law, criticizing it as a means for the government to legislate censorship and infringe on Canadians’ free speech.

“We will oppose Justin Trudeau’s latest attack on freedom of expression,” Poilievre responded to a question that True North’s Andrew Lawton asked last week.

The group warned that the sweeping nature of Bill C-63 risks censoring a broad spectrum of expression, from journalistic reporting to healthy conversations among youth under 18 about their own sexuality and relationships. The expansive restrictions on speech within the bill threaten public discourse and will criminalize political activism, warned the CCLA.

The Liberal government’s plan to curb the spread of what it terms “online hate” includes hefty fines of up to $70K for online speech and stringent punishments, including up to life imprisonment for hate crimes.

The draconian penalties of life imprisonment for a very broad and vaguely defined offence of “incitement to genocide” and five years of jail time for other broadly defined speech acts are imposed by the bill, said the CCLA.

“This not only chills free speech but also undermines the principles of proportionality and fairness in our legal system,” said Mendelsohn Aviv.

The new offence — “offence motivated by hatred”—risks misuse or overuse by police and unfairness to accused persons in court, warned the CCLA.

Amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act will let anybody file complaints against persons posting so-called hate speech with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. 

In 2014, a similar provision under the Act dealing with online hate messages was repealed by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper after it was found to have violated Canadians’ freedom of expression rights. 

“The new provision has the potential to censor strong opposition to political authorities. It limits debate and dissent on contentious issues, and historically has not adequately protected the most marginalized groups,” said Mendelsohn Aviv.

She added that an influx of complaints from this provision could strain the Canadian Human Rights Commission further, leading to increased backlogs and limiting access to justice for individuals facing discrimination in employment, services, and other contexts.

“We urge the parliament to amend Bill C-63 to ensure that any legislation aimed at curbing online harms upholds the fundamental principles guaranteed by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said the CCLA.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the legislation will be robustly debated in the House of Commons.