The government launched a public consultation on an updated law just before the election campaign and said the introduction of a bill was a priority.
The law is designed to crack down on hate speech and abuse — including against women and racialized, Jewish, Muslim and LGBTQ Canadians — by blocking certain websites and forcing platforms to quickly remove hateful content.
But Canadians from some of these groups said the internet is one of the few platforms where freedom of expression is possible for them and the law could restrict their rights.
Darryl Carmichael of the University of Calgary Law School said in his response that the law risks holding back racialized and marginalized groups and could lead to their messages being misinterpreted as harmful.
“Black Lives Matter posts were mistakenly labeled as hate speech and removed,” he said, warning that posts such as those raising awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls could also be removed.
“The result is that the voices of the very groups you seek to protect would be further isolated,” he said.
Sex workers across Canada have warned that such a law could shut down sites they use to perform safe sex work online if caught by restrictions on harmful online sexual content. They also raised fears of being at risk of arrest because of comments made in the course of their online sex work.
The Safe Harbor Outreach Project, which advocates for the rights of sex workers in Newfoundland and Labrador, warned that the bill could cause disproportionate harm to LGBTQ and other marginalized groups, as well as blocking sites “crucial to the safety of sex workers”. Her memoir expressed concern that the law would lead to mass censorship and exposure of many innocent people “already demonized…for their gender expression, race (and) sexuality.”
Some Indigenous people feared the bill would give law enforcement more power to target them, their speeches and their protest activities.
The National Association of Friendship Centers, a network of community centers providing programs and supports for urban Indigenous peoples, said “Indigenous-led organization, community and resistance have thrived online,” with protests against “resource extraction and development” relying on social media as “an important part of their communication strategy.”
“These acts of resistance would easily be labeled as anti-government or manifestations of indigenous cyberterrorism,” he said in his brief, warning of a “risk that governing bodies will use this legislation to identify demonstrations as anti-government”.
Experts say an AI algorithm may simply choose keywords, rather than the context or nuance of online remarks, leading them to be misinterpreted and triggering law enforcement involvement. order.
Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet Law at the University of Ottawa, who obtained the consultation documents through a freedom of information request, said that ” the use of AI and automated notifications could put these communities at risk.”
He said the level of criticism during the consultation, which includes a series of submissions complaining about restrictions on free speech, should be a “warning to the government” that it is taking the wrong approach.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims has warned that the government’s plans could “inadvertently lead to one of the most significant attacks on marginalized and racialized communities in years”.
Richard Marceau of the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs said a new law cracking down on online hate is needed, but “should be properly calibrated to combat hate and ensure freedom of expression is fully protected” .
The centre’s brief states that it is important that law enforcement involvement is proportionate and appropriate.
Laura Scaffidi, spokesperson for the heritage minister, said the government “took seriously what we heard from Canadians during the consultation that took place last year”, which is why it appointed an expert advisory group on how to tackle harmful online content.
“We know this is an important issue for Canadians,” she said. “We will take the time necessary to get it right.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 23, 2022.
Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press