Justice Minister Arif Virani said he would be open to amending the Online Harms Act while defending the bill in the House of Commons on June 7.

While Conservatives say the Liberal’s legislation to police online behavior would infringe Canadians’ Charter rights, the Bloc is calling for the legislation to be split into two parts so the more controversial aspects can be further debated.

“It forces Canadians to make unnecessary trade-offs between their security and their Charter rights,” Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner said during the debate on Bill C-63. “As well, this bill forces much-needed reforms into a long onerous regulatory process with no clear end in sight.”

The Online Harms Act, tabled by the Liberals in February, seeks to amend the Canadian Criminal Code and Canadian Human Rights Act to regulate internet content involving sexual exploitation, bullying, deepfakes, and “hateful conduct.” It also seeks to establish a Digital Safety Commission and other organizations to ensure digital platforms abide by the new rules.

The legislation will apply to social media services, live-streaming websites, and user-generated adult content services. It will exclude private communications, however, including correspondence via email and direct messaging on social media.

Ms. Rempel Garner said threats like online deep-fakes can be dealt with by amending the Criminal Code to update existing laws, instead of choosing an “onerous, widely-panned approach.”

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The Tory MP also expressed concern that Bill C-63 would create a new provision regarding offenses motivated by hatred, which she said could result in a life sentence for Canadians who make a minor infraction under any act in Parliament.

She described it as a “parasitic provision that is unchecked in the scope of this legislation,” adding that “words alone could lead to life imprisonment.”

The justice minister countered that the legislation’s hate crime provision mirrors laws in 47 US states, and would have criminal penalties proportional to the underlying offense.

Mr. Virani also said that the government is open to amendments that would strengthen the bill.

The government says the bill is meant to combat “online harms” by targeting content used to bully children or incite terrorism or violence.

It requires online platforms to protect children and make certain content inaccessible, or else face fines of millions of dollars.

Other features of the bill include adding a new standalone hate crime offense that applies to all existing offenses, add the provision of “fear” that someone may commit a hate crime in the future, and increase penalties for hate crimes. It also allows people, in some cases anonymously, to file complaints against others for posting “hate speech” online.

A Call for In-Depth Study

Bloc Quebecois MP Claude DeBellefeuille said while the party agreed with the first part of the bill on child pornography and the publication of non-consensual pornographic material, it has “reservations” about the second part.

Ms. DeBellefeuille called for the justice minister to split the legislation into two parts “so we can get the first part adopted as quickly as possible and then we can debate part two more fulsomely.”

Mr. Virani said he agreed consultation and in-depth study is needed on the entirety of the legislation. “We need to address all aspects because the harms are much broader than just content targeting children,” he said.

NDP MP Peter Julian said the legislation needed to be studied by a committee, adding that the Liberal government had “delayed” the legislation for “too long.” He added that some aspects of the bill are “surprising or lacking,” such as parts pertaining to social media sites’ transparency around algorithms, saying they needed to be addressed.

Mr. Virani said drafting the legislation involved several years of consultation with expert groups.

“If there’s anything more to add, I’m willing to consider good faith amendments and see how we can improve transparency and committee,” he said.

Mr. Virani told MPs the four objectives of the Online Harms Act are to reduce exposure to harmful content online and empower users, address the rise in hate crimes, ensure victims have recourse to improve remedies, and strengthen the reporting of child sexual abuse material to “enhance the criminal justice response to this heinous crime.”

The legislation is also a response to online radicalization that has led to real-life violence, such as the Quebec City Mosque shooting of 2017 that killed six people, he said.

The federal government has learned from similar legislation in other countries, he added, citing Germany and France as examples. Germany was criticized for its immediate takedown of all types of harmful content, while France’s “overbroad” restriction on freedom of speech was struck down as unconstitutional.

“We are not repeating those mistakes here,” Mr. Virani said. “Our approach is much more measured and reflects the critical importance of constitutionally protected, free expression in Canada’s democracy.”