It's one of several measures the government is considering to counter fake news about the virus online
The federal government is considering introducing legislation to make it an offence to knowingly spread misinformation that could harm people, says Privy Council President Dominic LeBlanc.
LeBlanc told CBC News he is interested in British MP Damian Collins's call for laws to punish those responsible for spreading dangerous misinformation online about the COVID-19 pandemic.
LeBlanc said he has discussed the matter already with other cabinet ministers, including Justice Minister David Lametti. If the government decides to follow through, he said, it could take a while to draft legislation.
"Legislatures and Parliaments are meeting scarcely because of the current context of the pandemic, so it's not a quick solution, but it's certainly something that we would be open [to] as a government," said LeBlanc.
NDP MP Charlie Angus said he would support legislation to fight online misinformation.
"Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and it is about protecting the public," he said.
"This is not a question of freedom of speech. This is a question of people who are actually actively working to spread disinformation, whether it's through troll bot farms, whether [it's] state operators or whether it's really conspiracy theorist cranks who seem to get their kicks out of creating havoc."
The comments come as governments around the world struggle to curb dangerous misinformation and disinformation circulating about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Collins, who chaired an international committee on big data, privacy and democracy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, said at the outset of the pandemic that much of the misinformation and disinformation in circulation was promoting fake cures for COVID-19 or offering tips on how to avoid catching it.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government set up an elaborate system to watch out for attempts to disrupt last year's federal election through disinformation, including a committee that brought together several departments and a special group chaired by the clerk of the Privy Council to sound the alarm.
The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) has been monitoring what's happening online during the pandemic, and has helped to remove fake sites set up by cybercriminals.
"Opportunistic cyber threat actors are attempting to take advantage of Canadians' heightened levels of concern and legitimate fears around COVID-19," said CSE spokesperson Ryan Foreman. "They are trying to spread misinformation and scam Canadians out of their money or private data.
"COVID-19 has presented cybercriminals and fraudsters with an effective lure to encourage victims to visit fake web sites, open email attachments and click on text message links. These emails typically impersonate health organizations, and can even pretend to be from the government of Canada."
Health Canada has the lead on monitoring for misinformation. For example, it is sending compliance letters to companies it finds making false or questionable claims about COVID-19.
"It's really the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada that have been, amongst other things, identifying as best as possible some of the more flagrant examples of misinformation, disinformation," said LeBlanc.