After years of battles over Bills C-11 and C-18, few Canadians will have the appetite for yet another troubling Internet bill. But given a bill that envisions government-backed censorship, mandates age verification to use search engines or social media sites, and creates a framework for court-ordered website blocking, there is a need to pay attention. Bill S-210, or the Protecting Young Persons from Exposure to Pornography Act, was passed by the Senate in April after Senators were reluctant to reject a bill framed as protecting children from online harm. The same scenario appears to be playing out in the House of Commons, where yesterday a majority of the House voted for the bill at second reading, sending it to the Public Safety committee for review. The bill, which is the brainchild of Senator Julie Miville-Duchêne, is not a government bill. In fact, government ministers voted against it. Instead, the bill is backed by the Conservatives, Bloc and NDP with a smattering of votes from backbench Liberal MPs. Canadians can be forgiven for being confused that after months of championing Internet freedoms, raising fears of censorship, and expressing concern about CRTC overregulation of the Internet, Conservative MPs were quick to call out those who opposed the bill (the House sponsor is Conservative MP Karen Vecchio).

I appeared before the Senate committee that studied the bill in February 2022, where I argued that “by bringing together website blocking, face recognition technologies, and stunning overbreadth that would capture numerous mainstream services, the bill isn’t just a slippery slope, it is an avalanche.” As I did then, I should preface criticism of the bill by making it clear that underage access to inappropriate content is indeed a legitimate concern. I think the best way to deal with the issue includes education, digital skills, and parental oversight of Internet use including the use of personal filters or blocking tools if desired. Moreover, if there are Canadian-based sites that are violating the law in terms of the content they host, they should absolutely face investigation and potential charges.

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However, Bill S-210 goes well beyond personal choices to limit underage access to sexually explicit material on Canadian sites. Instead, it envisions government-enforced global website liability for failure to block underage access, backed by website blocking and mandated age verification systems that are likely to include face recognition technologies. The government establishes this regulatory framework and is likely to task the CRTC with providing the necessary administration. While there are surely good intentions with the bill, the risks and potential harms it poses are significant.

The basic framework of Bill S-210 is that it creates an offence for any organization making available sexually explicit material to anyone under the age of 18 for commercial purposes. The penalty for doing so is $250,000 for the first offence and up to $500,000 for any subsequent offences. Organizations (broadly defined under the Criminal Code) can rely on three potential defences:

  1. The organization instituted a “prescribed age-verification method” to limit access. It would be up to the government to determine what methods qualify with due regard for reliability and privacy. There is a major global business of vendors that sell these technologies and who are vocal proponents of this kind of legislation.
  2. The organization can make the case that there is “legitimate purpose related to science, medicine, education or the arts.”
  3. The organization took steps required to limit access after having received a notification from the enforcement agency (likely the CRTC).

The enforcement of the bill is left to the designated regulatory agency, which can issue notifications of violations to websites and services. Those notices can include the steps the agency wants followed to bring the site into compliance. This literally means the government via its regulatory agency will dictate to sites how they must interact with users to ensure no underage access. If the site fails to act as instructed within 20 days, the regulator can apply for a court order mandating that Canadian ISPs block the site from their subscribers. The regulator would be required to identify which ISPs are subject to the blocking order.

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The website blocking provisions are focused on limiting user access and can therefore be applied to websites anywhere in the world with Canadian ISPs required to ensure that the sites are rendered inaccessible. And what about the risk of overblocking? The bill not only envisions the possibility of blocking lawful content or limiting access to those over 18, it expressly permits it. Section 9(5) states that if the court determines that an order is needed, it may have the effect of preventing access to “material other than sexually explicit material made available by the organization” or limiting access to anyone, not just young people. This raises the prospect of full censorship of lawful content under court order based on notices from a government agency.

If that isn’t bad enough, there are two additional serious concerns. First, the bill is not limited to pornography sites. Rather, it applies to any site or service that makes sexually explicit materials available. This would presumably include search engines, social media sites such as Twitter, or chat forums such as Reddit, where access to explicit material is not hard to find. If the bill was limited solely to sites whose primary purpose is the commercial distribution of sexually explicit material, it might be more defensible. As it stands now, the overbroad approach leaves this bill vulnerable to constitutional challenge.

Second, consider the way sites are supposed to comply with the law, by establishing age verification systems. This effectively means that sites will require their users to register with commercial age verification systems in order to run a search or access some tweets. And the age verification systems raise real privacy concerns, including mandated face recognition as part of the verification process.

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Senate private members bills rarely become law, but this bill is suddenly on the radar screen in a big way. The bill should not have come this far and should not be supported. Creating safeguards for underage access to inappropriate content is a laudable goal, but not at the cost of government-backed censorship, mandated face recognition, and age-approval requirements to use some of the most popular sites and services in the world.