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The debate surrounding the Liberals’ online hate law ranged from outright rejection of Bill C-63 to a desire to have the bill split into multiple parts.

Parliamentarians began debating Bill C-63, the Online Harms Act, on Friday. The Conservatives called the bill “irremediable,” while other parties wanted the bill reformed.

The Liberal justice minister, Arif Virani, said the bill was a “measured approach” to an “alarming spike in extremism” and a response to a growing number of Canadians who are “pleading for relief from online hate.”

He said the bill was essential to protecting potential victims, such as Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old British Columbia girl who killed herself after being a victim of cyberbullying.

“It enhances free expression by empowering all people to safely participate in online debate,” Virani said. He said the rise of extremism and hate crimes was evidence that “online dangers do not remain online,” and should therefore be regulated.

The Bloc Québécois, NDP and Conservatives agreed that there are aspects of the bill, regarding protecting children from sexual exploitation and revenge pornography online, that are necessary additions to the Criminal Code. But the other parts of the bill require further debate.

Bloc Québécois MP Claude Debellefuille affirmed that the Bloc supports “part one” of the bill, which deals with sexual crimes and exploitation. However, her party has objections to the sections regarding free speech and wants the government to split the bill.

“We think these reservations are reasonable, and we’d like to be able to debate them on the committee,” Debellefuille said. “Perhaps the government could accuse other parties of being partisan on part two (the part dealing with hate speech) but that’s not the case for the Bloc Québécois.”

The NDP said they want an in-depth study of the legislation at a committee hearing, though have indicated that they agree with it in principle.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner criticized the Liberals for not making “small amendments” to the Criminal Code that could protect Canadians against revenge porn and deep fakes. Instead, they lumped it in with the bill which she called an “onerous and widely panned approach.”

She criticized the liberals for treating all “harms” online as one homogeneous issue which necessitates the same solution and legislation.

“Harms that occur online is an incredibly heterogeneous set of problems requiring a multitude of tailored solutions,” she said.

Rempel Garner warned that the bill would introduce unprecedented measures such as life imprisonment and pre-crime punishments for speech.

The bill would allow peace bonds to be applied to those who are feared within “reasonable grounds” to be in danger of committing future acts of “hate speech” online.

She raised concerns about the bill’s subjective definition of hate speech and how the bill would incentivize and allow Canadians to make anonymous reports against offenders of the new law.

“The subjectivity of defining hate speech will undoubtedly lead to punishment for protected speech,” Rempel Garner said. “The mere threat of human rights complaints will chill large amounts of protected speech, and the system will undoubtedly be deluged with a landslide of vexatious complaints.” 

She argued that the bill lacked provisions which could prevent the new law from punishing Charter-protected speech.

She noted that Canadians don’t fully know the scope and cost of the bureaucracy proposed in the bill, but she has requested that the Parliamentary Budget Officer file a report about how much it would cost the taxpayer.

“C-63 creates a new three-headed yet-to-exist bureaucracy. It leaves much of the actual rules (it) describes to be created and enforced under undefined regulations, to be created by said bureaucracy at some much later date in the future,” she said.

“We can’t wait to take action in many circumstances, as one expert described it to me ‘it’s like vaguely creating an outline and expecting bureaucrats not elected legislators to colour in the picture behind closed doors without any accountability to the Canadian public.’”

Virani said that he was “open to amendments that would strengthen the bill if made in good faith.”

But Conservatives said the bill cannot be improved in a way that would be acceptable to them.

“I’ve laid out in detail why this bill is irremediable, it’s not fixable,” she said “To be clear, Canadians should not be expected to have their right to protected speech chilled or limited in order to be safe online, which is what C-63 asks of them.”