Virani defends Online Harms Bill after Margaret Atwood warns of ‘thoughtcrime’ risk

13 March 2024
Virani defends Online Harms Bill after Margaret Atwood warns of ‘thoughtcrime’ risk

Justice Minister Arif Virani is defending his government’s Online Harms Bill after celebrated Canadian writer Margaret Atwood shared views comparing the new legislation to George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The award-winning author took to social media late last week to share an article from the British magazine The Spectator titled, “Trudeau’s Orwellian online harms bill.”

“If this account of the bill is true, it’s Lettres de Cachet all over again,” Atwood wrote on X, referring to letters once sent out by the King of France authorizing imprisonment without trial.

The federal government introduced late last month its long-awaited Online Harms Bill, which proposes to police seven categories of harmful content online, including content used to bully a child, content that sexualizes children or victims of sexual violence, content that incites violence or terrorism, and hate speech.

As part of proposed amendments, “hate speech” would be defined based on Supreme Court of Canada decisions.

“The possibilities for revenge false accusations + thoughtcrime stuff are sooo inviting!” Atwood wrote.

In Orwell’s cautionary novel about a totalitarian society, thoughtcrime is the illegal act of disagreeing with the  government’s political ideology in one’s unspoken thoughts.

Atwood famously tackled authoritarian regimes in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, in which a religious patriarchal society forces women to bear children and those who speak freely are severely punished.

Her publicist said she was not available for interview about her social media post.

Asked about Atwood’s comment during an event in Toronto, Virani said there’s a lack of understanding about  Bill C-63 and how to combat hate.

Virani said the definition of hate speech in the bill does not include content that’s “awful but lawful.”

“It includes expressions of detestation and vilification. It does not include insults, offensive comments, or jokes that are not very polite,” said Virani in French.

“The idea that someone on their smartphone on an afternoon while they’re watching a football game, if they insult anyone … could be condemned in a court or caught by a peace bond is ridiculous, in my opinion.”

Virani, who is shepherding the Online Harms Bill through the House of Commons, said protecting freedom of expression is essential to him as minister of justice.

Over the weekend the minister responded to Atwood on X suggesting the article she shared “mischaracterizes the bill.”

“Happy to discuss,” he posted.

Former chief justice thinks bill will be challenged

Atwood isn’t the only eminent Canadian weighing in.

Speaking on the Public Policy Forum’s “WONK” podcast, former chief justice of the Supreme Court Beverley McLachlin said society is changing.

“It’s our responsibility as responsible citizens, it’s the government’s responsibility, to deal with new media, new harms, new things that develop in society. So I applaud the government for taking this on, as many other countries have,” she said.

But she cited potential problems with the bill’s proposed changes to the Criminal Code, such as an increase in the maximum punishment for four hate propaganda offences.

Someone found guilty of advocating genocide, for example, could face life imprisonment, up from five years in prison.

“I do predict that this is going to be challenged in the courts,” McLachlin told host Edward Greenspon.

“We have not seen this in speech law, expression law, to my knowledge — life sentences for sending out some words. That’s heavy. And it will, I suspect, be challenged.”

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has called for amendments, saying the bill’s “draconian penalties” could put a chill on free speech.

“Bill C-63 risks censoring a range of expression from journalistic reporting to healthy conversations among youth under 18 about their own sexuality and relationships,” said executive director Noa Mendelsohn Aviv in a statement issued soon after the bill was introduced.

“The broad criminal prohibitions on speech in the bill risk stifling public discourse and criminalizing political activism. “

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has said his party supports criminalizing the harmful content categories laid out in the bill. But the Tory leader accused the Liberals of trying to create more bureaucracy rather than supporting law enforcement agencies.

Speaking to a small group of reporters the day after the bill was introduced, RCMP Commissioner Mike Duheme said he welcomed the legislation, particularly tougher sentencing provisions and the move to make tech companies bear more responsibility for what happens online.

Duheme said that right now, the RCMP believes it could enforce the new measures without additional resources.

Source: cbc

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