Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Chair, members of the committee, good morning.
I would first like to acknowledge that I am joining you from Montreal, on the traditional territory of the Mohawk and other Haudenosaunee peoples.
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. With me, as you said, are Joëlle Montminy, senior assistant deputy minister, cultural affairs, and Pierre-Marc Perreault, acting director, digital citizen initiative.
Like you and many other Canadians, I am concerned by the disturbing rise and spread of hateful, violent and exploitive content online and on social media.
As a legislator and father of four children, I find some of the content of these platforms to be profoundly inhuman.
I am also deeply troubled by the consequences and the echoes of that content in the real world.
The overall benefits of the digital economy and social media are without question. In fact, I published a book, shortly before I took up politics, wherein I talked about the benefits of the digital economy, of artificial intelligence in particular, but also about some unintended negative consequences.
In Canada, more than 9 out of 10 adults use at least one online platform, and since the beginning of the pandemic, online platforms have played an even more important role in our lives.
We use social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to stay connected to our families, friends and colleagues. We use them to work, to conduct business, to reach new markets and audiences, to make our voices and opinions heard, and to engage in necessary and vital democratic debate. However, we have also seen how social media can have negative and very harmful impacts.
On a daily basis, there are Internet users who share damaging content, either to spread hate speech, the sexual exploitation of children, terrorist propaganda, or words meant to incite violence.
This content has led and contributed to violent outbursts such as the attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City in 2017, and similar attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019.
Canadians and people all over the world have watched these events and others unfold on the news with shock and fear. We all understand the connections between these events and hateful, harmful online discourse. We worry about our own safety and security online. We worry about what our children and our loved ones will be exposed to.
According to a recent poll by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, an overwhelming 93% of Canadians believe that online hate and racism are a problem, and at least 60% believe that the government has an obligation to prevent the spread of hateful and racist content online.
In addition, the poll revealed that racialized groups in Canada are more than three times more likely to experience racism online than non-racialized Canadians.
Since the beginning of the COVID‑19 pandemic, we have seen a rise in anti-Asian hate speech on the Internet and a steady increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric, further fuelled by recent events.
A June 2020 study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that Canadians use more than 6,600 online services, pages and accounts hosted on various social media platforms to convey ideologies tinged with white supremacism, misogyny or extremism. This type of content wreaks havoc and destroys lives. It is intimidating and undermines constructive exchange. In doing so, it prevents us from having a true democratic debate and undermines free speech.
The facts speak for themselves. We must act, and we must act now. We believe that every person has the right to express themselves and participate in Internet exchanges to the fullest extent possible, without fear and without intimidation or concern for their safety. We believe that the Internet should be an inclusive place where we can safely express ourselves.
Our government is therefore committed to taking concrete steps to address harmful content online, particularly if the content advocates child sexual exploitation, terrorism, violence, hate speech, and non-consensual sharing of intimate images.
In fact, this is one of the priorities outlined in the mandate letter given to me by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. So we have begun the process to develop legislation that will address the concerns of Canadians.
Over the past few months my office and I have engaged with over 140 stakeholders from both civil society organizations and the digital technology sector regarding this issue. This has included seven round-table discussions. We also spoke with indigenous groups, racialized Canadians, elected provincial officials, municipal officials and our international partners to assess our options and begin to develop a proposed approach.
In addition, given the global nature of the problem, I have hosted a virtual meeting with my counterparts from Australia, Finland, France and Germany—who were part of the multi-stakeholder working group on diversity of content online—to discuss the importance of a healthy digital ecosystem and how to work collectively.
I am also working closely with my colleagues the ministers of Justice, Public Safety, Women and Gender Equality,Diversity and Inclusion and Youthas well asInnovation, Science and Industry to find the best possible solution.
Our collaborative work aims to ensure that Canada's approach is focused on protecting Canadians and continued respect for their rights, including freedom of opinion and expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The goal is to develop a proposal that establishes an appropriate balance between protecting speech and preventing harm.
Let me be clear. Our objective is not to reduce freedom of expression but to increase it for all users, and to ensure that no voices are being suppressed because of harmful content.
We want to build a society where radicalization, hatred, and violence have no place, where everyone is free to express themselves, where exchanges are not divisive, but an opportunity to connect, understand, and help each other. We are continuing our work and hope to act as quickly and effectively as possible. I sincerely hope that I can count on the committee's support and move forward to build a more transparent, accountable and equitable digital world.
I thank you for your attention and will be happy to answer any questions you may have.