OTTAWA — A group of experts, summoned by the government last year for their advice on a new law to protect children online, is now urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government to hurry up and introduce the long-awaited legislation or risk placing even more Canadian kids in danger's way.
The letter published Thursday calls on the federal government to urgently bring forward a bill to address "harms posed by digital platforms," especially behaviour and content that can affect children.
"Our lack of governance has put Canadian children at greater risk than their counterparts in much of the democratic world," it reads.
"Canadian kids are increasingly subjected to egregious privacy violations, harassment, extortion and cyberbullying from offenders within and outside of Canada, on platforms they use every day."
Emily Laidlaw, a law professor at the University of Calgary and former co-chair of the government's advisory group, said it is "time to push" for the bill.
"Other democracies including the United Kingdom, the European Union and Australia have introduced and passed legislation aimed at safeguarding their citizens online, with special obligations to protect children," the letter reads.
"Some of these are second or third generation online safety laws, while Canada has yet to introduce its first federal online safety law. It is urgent that Canada act to protect the safety and fundamental rights of Canadians."
Two years of federal consultations produced "wide-ranging consensus" that platforms should be held responsible for their services and any harms that result, notes the letter, which as of early Thursday had been signed by more than 50 experts and advocates.
Canada's legislation should place a duty on online platforms to ensure they work to protect its users from harm and create a regulator "with the power to investigate and audit platforms, mandate corrective action and impose fines," it adds.
The letter also calls for more transparency, as well as auditing tools to ensure companies are meeting the requirements.
"We will certainly not all agree on the specifics of the bill, but it is time to start the urgent public debate about it.'"
There was no one particular incident that spurred the letter, said Laidlaw — only the "slow march of time" since the momentum from several years ago, when the government launched its initial round of consultations on what the legislation should look like.
Then, she said, "everything went quiet."
Calls for action have only increased since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, which has fuelled an increase in antisemitism and Islamophobia online, as well as the death of a 12-year-old B.C. boy who took his own life last month after falling prey to an online sextortion scheme.
Earlier this week, Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the incident serves as a "tragic reminder" of the risks online harms pose, especially to those who are vulnerable.
One of the signatories to the letter is Carol Todd, mother of Amanda Todd, whose teenage daughter died by suicide more than a decade ago after she posted a video online detailing how she had been blackmailed by an online predator.
Aydin Coban, a Dutch national, was convicted of extortion, harassment, possession of child pornography and communicating with a young person to commit a sexual offence. He was sentenced by a B.C. court to 13 years behind bars, but is awaiting a decision on how he will serve that time in the Netherlands.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pushed back Wednesday when NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh questioned him in the House of Commons about why he had not yet tabled the bill.
Trudeau said his government remains "serious" about moving forward on protections against online harms.
Justice Minister Arif Virani has vowed to introduce the legislation as soon as possible, though he underscored that it can be difficult to determine how best to regulate online platforms.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2023.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press