Last month, I appeared before the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs to discuss Bill S-210, a bill that aims to limit minors’ access to pornography sites by implementing age verification and website blocking requirements. I warned that face recognition technologies, which are often used for age verification, raise serious privacy risks and that website blocking would have negative consequences for freedom of expression. Further, I emphasized how incredibly broadly the bill is drafted. While the Senators were focused on some well-known pornography sites, widely used sites and services such as Twitter or Reddit are also captured by the bill, raising the possibility of age verification to send a tweet or read a Reddit post.
The committee’s study of the bill continued yesterday with an appearance by Scott Hutton, the CRTC’s Chief of Consumer, Research and Communications. While Hutton emphasized there were no easy answers and that net neutrality principles would likely preclude action with respect to content regulation under the Telecommunications Act, his responses to some Senators reinforce concerns that should Bill C-11 pass, the Commission will be in the Internet content regulation business through the Broadcasting Act. Indeed, while Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and the CRTC have sought to downplay concerns that the CRTC would seek to regulate online content, Hutton told the committee the Commission needs more power in order to adopt a more interventionist approach:
With respect to the role of the ISPs themselves, yes we have considerable authority on many different fronts, but the Telecom Act and how we have to implement it and it is certainly not clear – and I’m being quite honest when I say not clear – that we can deal with content under that Act. Where we deal with content is under the Broadcasting Act and hopefully that can be modernized to take a more interventionist approach in this area.
How might the Commission intervene? Hutton seemingly embraced the possibility of age verification requirements as conditions of service for some sites:
We have limits on who we can apply our regulations to at this point in time. It is certainly looking at providing other tools such as regulation making tools that can be applied to these particular players, making sure that are subject to our Act, and being able to ask for information, do investigations, and ensure that we can put in place conditions of service, such as requiring age verification.
It is hard to overstate how dangerous it would be for the CRTC to be vested with new powers to regularly intervene in online content or consider “conditions of service” for Internet sites and services. While the government insists that Bill C-11 is designed for large streaming services with limited regulations, it would appear that the CRTC may have other ideas.