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Legal scholars are sounding the alarm about the Liberals’ online harms bill, raising concerns of excessive criminal penalties and oversight issues.

During a webinar hosted on Wednesday by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, two legal experts raised significant concerns about the Canadian government’s proposed Online Harms Act, Bill C-63.

Emily Laidlaw, a cybersecurity expert and law professor at the University of Calgary, co-chaired the expert group that advised the federal government on developing the Online Harms Act. She was one of the panelists on the webinar alongside University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist.

The lawyers, both of whom are Jewish, dissected the complexities of the proposed legislation, highlighting areas that could impede civil liberties and debating their views, which sometimes aligned but also diverged. 

The theme of the webinar was unity, not uniformity, signifying that while everyone may not agree with the opinions, they stand united. 

Geist said that the bill is best understood as two bills in one: the online harms piece, involved in regulating large internet platforms and the things that take place on them, and the second ‘bill’ which includes changes to the Criminal Code and Canadian Human Rights Act, which focuses on hate and particularly individuals instead of platforms. 

Amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act will allow anybody to file complaints against people posting “hate speech” with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. If found guilty, the tribunal can order that the content be taken down and impose fines of up to $70,000.

Geist criticized the vague and expansive powers granted to the digital safety commissioner, highlighting a serious gap in oversight and detailed regulatory guidelines.

“Especially with what are truly quite enormous powers that are vested in the digital safety commissioner, and I believe trust in this legislation is going to depend in large measure and trust in how it’s enforced with the digital safety commissioner,” he said.

The largest concern, according to Geist, is the Criminal Code provisions.

“I think the notion of life in prison, where any violation is motivated by hate, the idea that this could include life (in prison) has some pretty significant implications, and I find it really difficult to justify,” he said.

Laidlaw agreed that the bill was really two or three bills within one. Her biggest concerns are the Criminal Code provisions and the introduction of Section 13.

“What the threshold is for hatred is probably one of the key concerns about this legislation,” said Laidlaw. However, she explained that the Supreme Court has set a very high threshold for the definition of hate speech. One that is “beyond defence.”

The lawyers agreed that the online harms portion of the bill took lessons from other jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom, and balances freedom of expression with other rights.

True North previously reported a United Kingdom television show criticizing the authoritarian aspects of Bill C-63.

However, neither lawyer can wrap their head around the Criminal Code and Canadian Human Rights Act provisions. 

“By the inclusion of things like life in prison, it has muddied the debate around some of the other provisions that have made much of this discussion much more difficult,” said Geist.

True North previously reported that the Canadian Civil Liberties Association called for significant changes to Bill C-63 to protect Canadians from constitutional violations.

Geist and Laidlaw shared their visions for the bill, detailing the changes they would implement if given the authority to reshape Bill C-63.

Laidlaw said that the online harms portion could be passed with minor adjustments but that she’d make major revisions or scrap the Criminal Code provisions altogether. As for provisions to the Canadian Human Rights Act, she said she can’t figure out ways to avoid weaponizing it against people.

Geist said that his first act would be to separate the Criminal Code and Human Rights Act sections into their own distinct bills, to be debated separately. 

“So, government certainly needs to pay attention to this and prioritize this from a political perspective… and I think we’ve really suffered, at least in part, because governments at multiple levels haven’t stepped up in the way that they must when its comes to this issue,” concluded Geist.

Having passed its first reading on February 26, 2024, Bill C-63 is now undergoing its second reading in the House of Commons, where it continues to undergo debate.