Bill S-210 – the Protecting Young Persons from Exposure to Pornography Act – burst onto the public scene late last year as 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-Dechêne, was supported by the Conservatives, Bloc and NDP with a smattering of votes from backbench Liberal MPs (the cabinet voted against, signalling it is not supported by the government). The bill raises significant concerns with the prospect of government-backed censorship, mandated age verification to use search engines or social media, and a framework for court-ordered website blocking (I appeared before the Senate committee that studied by the bill in February 2022, arguing 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.”).
In response to the public criticism of the bill, Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne has suggested that concerns about it extending to general purpose social media sites is overstated since the intent is to target adult content sites. Yet that is not what the bill provides as it applies to anyone who makes sexually explicit material available on the Internet for commercial purposes:
Any organization that, for commercial purposes, makes available sexually explicit material on the Internet to a young person is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction and is liable,
(a) for a first offence, to a fine of not more than $250,000; and
(b) for a second or subsequent offence, to a fine of not more than $500,000.
There is no threshold or limit in the law that would exclude sites that may make available some sexually explicit material, but are primarily focused on other content. Indeed, other jurisdictions include thresholds specifically to ensure that general purposes social media or search sites are not included. For example, a Montana law limits its application to sites that contain a “substantial portion” of material that is inappropriate for minors. Substantial portion is defined as at least 1/3 of all the content on the site, a threshold that would exclude most search and social media sites.
Not only does Bill S-210 cast its net far wider than just adult content sites, but that is seemingly exactly what the lobby group representing age verification technology providers – the lead lobbyist for this kind of legislation worldwide – actively promotes. In response to the recent concerns about the Canadian law, the Age Verification Providers Association posted on the bill and stated the following about the need for a broad scope:
Confining attempts to protect children from pornography to only dedicated adult sites would be to miss the social media platforms where research (from Ofcom and others) has shown that most children are first exposed to this hardcore material. Age assurance need only be applied when users wish to see content that is adult in nature, not simply to access a platform in the first place. For young people, social media platforms are the Internet; typing “www…” is something their parents do – they are on X, Snap, Insta and Twitch.
In other words, the unlimited scope of the Canadian law to sites such as Twitter, Snap, Instagram, Twitch and many others is no accident. If the lead lobby group behind the legislation gets its way, it is the stated goal of Bill S-210 to require all Canadians to undergo an age verification system in order to access content on general purpose sites with the threat of penalties and site blocking awaiting those sites that refuse to comply. Despite claims that this approach is becoming increasingly common, other jurisdictions, notably including Australia, have rejected the age verification approach altogether. As I noted late last year, it may have started in obscurity, but Bill S-210 is a dangerous bill that raises serious risks to privacy, freedom of expression, and censorship in Canada.