From the Desk of Avi Benlolo: Online Hate: Recommendations to the House of Commons' Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights

May 31, 2019

Editorial

This week, FSWC President and CEO Avi Benlolo was in Ottawa where he spoke in front of the House of Commons' Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, offering his recommendations on what actions need to be taken to stem the propagation of hate online. Here is what he said:

Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center is an international human rights organization. We have a network of offices around the world, monitoring and responding to antisemitism; fighting hate and discrimination and promoting human rights. The organization has status with the United Nations, UNESCO, the OSCE and many other notable global institutions. Additionally, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has won two academy awards for its films, has developed museums and is currently building a human rights museum in Jerusalem.

In Canada, we have won the Canadian Race Relations Foundation’s award for our tolerance training workshops on the Tour for Humanity and in the classroom. We educate about 50,000 students each year, in addition to law enforcement, teachers, faith leaders and many others. We have about 30,000 members across the country.  

The organization has been tracking online hate for more than two decades. Twenty years ago, online hate was primarily found on websites. They were fairly easy to track, document and in some cases, bring down through the help of Internet Service Providers (ISP).  

Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act allowed us to bring down several online hate sites simply by bringing attention to them with the ISP. Our ability to sanction hate sites became limited when Section 13 was repealed in 2013. We lost an invaluable tool that provided a red line for the public.

If that tool was in existence today, it's unlikely that antisemitic websites based in Canada like the Canadian Association for Free Expression, Your Ward News and others would easily find a home on Canadian servers.

The advent of social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others introduced a tsunami of hate into the social sphere. According to one study, roughly 4.2 million antisemitic tweets were posted and reposted on Twitter between January 2017 and January 2018.

Conversely, according to Statistics Canada’s 2017 hate crime report, there were 364 police-reported cyber hate crimes in Canada between 2010 and 2017 – 14% aimed at the Jewish community. The fact this number is so low indicates that Canada needs better tracking mechanisms for online hate.

The Statistics Canada police report especially appears low given that a recent Leger Marketing poll showed that 60% of Canadians report seeing hate speech on social media. That would mean 20 million Canadians have witnessed hate online.

Moreover, through our own polling, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center found that on average, 15% of Canadians hold antisemitic attitudes across the country. That represents about 5 million Canadians! In Quebec, that number surges to an incomprehensible 27%.

Social networking platforms must be held to account for allowing online hate to proliferate. We note these platforms have begun banning white supremacist and extreme terror groups. This is certainly one step forward.  

However, since they are operating in Canada, we must demand platforms conform to our Criminal Code – specifically, Section 318 (advocating genocide); Section 319-1 (publicly inciting hatred) and Section 319-2 (willfully promoting hatred).

It's possible that what Canada requires is a CRTC-like office with a mandate to regulate online content and specifically ensure online hate is curtailed. Indeed, one CRTC mandate is to “Protect.” CRTC says, “We engage in activities that enhance the safety and interests of Canadians by promoting compliance with and enforcement of its regulations, including those relating to unsolicited communications.” That appears to be consistent with our interest here to limit proliferation of hate online in accordance with Canadian law.

The Christchurch Call to Action to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online is a positive first step. However, it must be implemented by Canada with concrete tools. Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center recommends the following actions that could help stem the propagation of hateful acts against all communities, through online platforms:

  1. Re-instituting Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act to make it illegal to utilize communications platforms to discriminate against a person and or an identifiable group.
  2. The section should as well make platforms and service providers liable for ensuring they are not hosting hate websites and are moderating their online social networking feeds. Fines should be imposed and criminal sanctions placed on violators.
  3. Expanding Statistics Canada's mandate to collect and share hate crimes statistics. At the moment, Canadian policy makers and organizations are mostly guessing the extent of hate crime online and beyond. We need better information collected across the country in order to make better policy.
  4. Improve police capacity and ability to track and respond to hate crime. Through our research, we have discovered inconsistency among hate crime units across the country. Some cities lack the resources to implement and deploy hate crime investigators. Last fall, we initiated the first-ever cross-country hate crimes conference to bring together experts from police units across the country to learn about best practices.
  5. Improved communication between the attorney generals (provincial) and police when it comes to investigating and prosecuting hate crime and speech offenders. This will require additional training for prosecutors and police officers, so that victims of hate speech/crime feel their needs are addressed.
  6. Education is required now more than ever on responsible usage of social networking sites and websites. Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center dedicates millions of dollars each year to educate students about online hate, intolerance and hate crimes. We do so through our Tour for Humanity, our propaganda workshops and school assemblies. We believe the government should expend more resources in educating against cyber-hate at the soonest opportunity.


Finding a balance between protecting free speech and protecting victims of hate crime is essential. Our freedom and democracy must be protected. At the same time, we must recognize that there are victimized groups that need protection too – and leaving the issue to the marketplace will bring about unpredictable consequences.

Even the Globe and Mail admitted in an editorial last week that times have changed since the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a law in 1992 making it a crime to “spread false news.”

“Much has changed since then,” states the Globe and Mail editorial. “Mr. Zundel printed and handed out crude pamphlets” whereas today, the same hateful message can be viewed by millions of people at once and inspire violent action.

The recent terror attacks in New Zealand, Sri Lanka, San Diego and Pittsburgh must motivate government and civil society to take immediate action. Terrorism can be prevented with the right placement of instruments – they include a combination of enhanced legal measures; advanced monitoring and prevention; increased resources for law enforcement and hate crime units and broader educational programs that promote tolerance.

We hope the Committee makes recommendations for immediate amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act to end incitement and hatred on online platforms.

Thank you.

Shabbat Shalom,

~Avi

< Back to News Room