Canada introduces sweeping new online safety rules

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Canada has introduced a new bill that aims to combat online abuse with steep penalties for hate crimes – including life in prison for inciting genocide.

The proposed Online Harms Act requires social media platforms to remove posts – such as those which sexualise children – within 24 hours.

The law would regulate social media companies, live streaming platforms and “user-uploaded adult content” websites.

The bill still needs to be voted on by Canada’s Parliament

It lists seven categories of harmful content that providers would be required to remove from their websites. Banned content includes posts made to bully a child or those encouraging self-harm.

The proposed Act would create a “digital safety commission of Canada” to regulate online platforms.

“We know the harms we experience online can have real world impacts with tragic, and sometimes fatal consequences,” Justice Minister Arif Virani said in a news conference on Monday.

“And yet so much of this goes unchecked.”

He said that the bill would ban deep-fakes, such as images that recently went viral showing Taylor Swift’s head on a naked woman’s body. Private messages sent between individuals would fall outside of the law’s provisions, he added.

The bill must first be studied by a parliamentary committee and by the Senate – both of which may introduce changes to the final draft of the bill.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government also plans to amend the criminal code to increase hate crime penalties, including by introducing a new offense punishable by up to life imprisonment for those found guilty of inciting genocide.

The Canadian Human Rights Act would also be amended to classify hate speech as discrimination, and would allow the Human Rights Tribunal to handle hate speech offenses.

The ruling Liberal Party had vowed during the 2021 election to introduce an online safety bill within 100 days of re-election.

Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the New Democratic Party, has said his group will vote for the new law, but criticised the government for waiting so long to introduce the bill.

“Their inaction has meant that kids were harmed. That kids actually were exploited online because they failed to act,” Mr Singh said, according to the Canadian Press.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has said his party opposes “Justin Trudeau’s woke authoritarian agenda”, which he claimed would be used to censor political speech.

“What does Justin Trudeau mean when he says the words ‘hate speech’? He means the speech he hates,” Mr Poilievre said last week. “You can assume he will ban all of that.”

Other countries, including the UK, Australia and France, have recently introduced new laws intended to stem online hate content.

The new legislation comes amid tensions between the Canadian government and social media companies over a law that forces companies to pay Canadian news publishers for their content.

In November, Google parent company Alphabet agreed to pay C$100m annually to the government, while Meta decided to block news content on Instagram and Facebook in order to avoid the law.

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