Civil Rights Groups Urge Government to Stop Bill S-210/Age Verification Bill

Canada’s age verification bill is hugely controversial. Now, civil rights groups are calling for the bill to be stopped.

It’s no secret that Bill S-210, or Canada’s age verification bill, is a terrible mess. It violates people’s privacy, envisions the use of technology that doesn’t exist, rolls out a massive government internet censorship regime, and does nothing to “save the children”. MPs, for their part, have no clue how this bill is supposed to work in practice and just hope that committee will be able to carry out this fools errand of making this bill somehow workable.

The Canadian mainstream media has done nothing to help the situation as they decide to sit in the cheering section for the government instead of doing their damned jobs. They’ve invented all sorts of lies to help the government sell this legislation. From basic parenting doesn’t work to the lie that this bill only applies to adult websites, the lie that this bill somehow protects against child luring or the lie that the Liberal government is out of step with the rest of the world for questioning the bill in the first place. Asking tough questions about this bill is about the last thing the Canadian mainstream media wants to do with this bill as they have chosen to abandon all journalistic principle and literally fabricate stories to try and sell the legislation to the population. Lucky for you, there’s websites like Freezenet out there that actually look at things like this critically as we do the job the mainstream media is utterly failing to do.

Digital rights organization, Open Media, recently started to mount some pressure against lawmakers pushing this bad bill. Yesterday, they published an FAQ about the legislation that actually points to the flaws of the legislation and explains why it is an unworkable mess.

Today, we learned that Open Media, along with several other civil rights organizations, have sent a joint letter to lawmakers urging them to halt this bill. From Open Media:

Today, OpenMedia and 9 civil society groups and experts released a joint letter to the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, outlining key concerns with Bill S-210, An Act to restrict young persons’ online access to sexually explicit material, and demanding the committee not pass S-210 in its current form.

The joint letter presents three key concerns with Bill S-210: privacy risks to Canadian internet users caused by unsafe age verification measures; the bill’s overly broad scope, which would lock access to most Canadian Internet services, not only adult websites; and the use of court-ordered website blocking as a remedy. While the signatories acknowledge the value of protecting young people, they emphasize the need for a careful balance between this goal and safeguarding citizens’ essential rights– a balance that Bill S-210 does not strike.

A key concern of the letter is S-210’s lack of protection against websites adopting fundamentally unsafe age verification measures, including uploading government IDs, live facial analysis, and scanning user social network activity. This risk is compounded by the broad scope of Bill S-210, which does not restrict itself to websites that intentionally distribute adult material, but targets any web service used to access adult material. As a result, mainstream platforms, services, and potentially even internet service providers are included and would be obligated to lock their services. Due to these concerns, the letter’s signatories conclude that Bill S-210 cannot be allowed to pass into law in its current form. The signatories welcome opportunities to further discuss their concerns.

“Bill S-210 puts a giant lock over most of the Internet, and demands Canadians compromise our privacy to turn the key. While protecting young people from age-inappropriate material is important, legislation that does so must be reasonable, proportionate, and respectful of everyone’s rights. The extreme provisions of S-210 must be rejected, either by dropping or fundamentally reworking the bill.” – Matt Hatfield, Executive Director of OpenMedia

“Bill S-210 presents a clear danger to the more than 170,000 sex workers in Canada. Many people in Canada use income generated via on-line content to feed and house their families. The Government has once again failed to consult with or even consider the impacts on sex working people. What will our community do? Will we be forced back to the streets?” – Susan Davis of the BC Coalition of Experimental Communities

“Bill S-210 is a grossly disproportionate and ill-considered approach to protecting children. “Its reliance on as-yet unspecified age verification technology poses significant privacy risks, and the threat it creates for Canadians’ rights to free expression is just as concerning. The Bill explicitly and alarmingly contemplates blocking access for adults and to non-sexually-explicit material. Further, since it applies at the level of email providers, social media networks, and search engines, it creates a court process where content creators are not entitled to participate and defend their rights.” – Aislin Jackson, Policy Staff Counsel at the BC Civil Liberties Association

“This bill, in attempting to deal with an important concern for children’s online safety, is scoped so broadly that it creates significant privacy risks for every person in Canada who uses common internet sites. The multiple problems it creates are as troubling as the one it seeks to solve.” – Brenda McPhail, Director of Executive Education, Masters of Public Policy Program, McMaster University

The open letter (PDF) itself lays out the numerous concerns about the legislation:

Dear Mr. MacDonald,

We, the undersigned civil society organisations, individuals, technology and legal experts are writing to express our strong concerns regarding Bill S-210, “An Act to restrict young persons’ online access to sexually explicit material.” We appreciate the desire to protect children by reducing their exposure to age-inappropriate sexual material on the Internet. Regrettably, as currently written, S-210 does not strike an appropriate balance between that goal and Canadians’ fundamental rights to privacy, freedom of expression, security of the person, and access to information. In this letter, we outline some of the most egregious aspects of the Bill.

Privacy Risks and Age Verification:

Information about our intimate interests and identities is amongst the most sensitive personal data that exists. While Section 11(2) of S-210 attempts to provide some guidelines for protecting this data, we are concerned that S-210 does not clearly rule out or protect against the use of risky, privacy-violating online ID verification methods, including the presentation of government ID, analysing a user’s social networks to estimate identity, or live facial recognition technology. If implemented without stringent safeguards, each of these technologies could lead to unwarranted surveillance, profiling, and the creation of dangerously vulnerable databases. We caution that Bill C-27 (including Part 3) also does not provide the necessary safeguards.

Overly Broad Scope:

Section 5 of Bill S-210 lacks a specific requirement of an intention by an ISP to make adult content available on a commercial basis, thus raising significant concerns about how much of the Internet the Bill would put behind an age gate. Much of the Internet earns commercial revenue, whether directly or indirectly, and many services permit user uploads and user content. Yet Section 5 is so broadly written that it would affect not only user content hubs like Reddit and file-sharing services, but even basic Internet functions like search engines and Internet Access Providers.

Website Blocking as a Remedy:

The coercive remedy for compliance provided by Section 9(1) — website blocking — raises additional concerns. Website blocking is an imprecise tool that often captures far more content and sites than explicitly targeted. As such, it should be only permitted in narrow, necessary and clearly defined circumstances.

Under Section 9(5), the Federal Court must determine that the order is “necessary to ensure that the sexually explicit material is not made available to young persons on the Internet in Canada”. If these order-making powers are retained, this safeguard must at minimum be strengthened by explicitly requiring the order to be issued only where the interest in preventing access by young persons clearly overrides the freedom of expression rights and impact of other users, with consideration for what other services may be affected.

Due to the critical concerns we have highlighted above, we believe Bill S-210 cannot be allowed to pass into law in its current form.

The letter was signed by the following:

Organisational Signatories
Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights
BC Civil Liberties Association
BC Coalition of Experiential Communities
Centre for Law and Democracy
Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project (ESPLERP)
Ligue des droits et libertés
Privacy & Access Council of Canada

Individual Signatories
Brenda McPhail, Director of Executive Education, Master of Public Policy Program, McMaster University
Michael Geist, University of Ottawa

One thing is for sure, it is really nice seeing such a horrible bill receiving pushback from civil society organizations like this. The thing that concerns me in this is the fact that the current government has developed a reputation of not really listening to outside feedback. While this is largely the Liberal’s doing that with the Online News Act and the Online Streaming Act, it’s hard to say whether or not the parties pushing this bill (namely the Conservatives and the Bloc) will be any better. Still, there’s always hope and efforts like this are obviously very warranted regardless of the chances that Canadian voices will be heard.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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