With more questions surrounding Canada’s age verification law being raised, MPs admit they don’t know how it would work.
Earlier, we reported on Bill S-210 moving forward. It is a Canadian censorship bill pushed by the Conservatives, NDP, and the Bloc. When we wrote our analysis of the bill, we came to many of the same conclusions as other experts: the bill is an unworkable and unconstitutional mess. Reasons for this includes the fact that the bill targets all websites and doesn’t envision a threshold for how much of the content on that website has to be explicit material before the law takes affect. Instead, it just orders ISPs to censor websites regardless for any content that is termed “explicit” (a vague term that can mean almost anything).
Because of government blocking of expression that would otherwise be legal, there are obvious questions of whether or not this bill is even constitutional when it comes to freedom of expression. What’s more, the bill envisions that for websites to comply with this, they should employ “effective” technology to stop minors from accessing such content – technology that simply doesn’t exist and probably will never exist.
What’s more, there are huge privacy concerns. While the legislation asks websites to destroy personal data once age verification requirements has been met, there are no penalties for websites that don’t comply with that. Indeed, Canadian privacy law is still in the stone ages where the only repercussion is a strongly worded letter from Privacy Commissioners when a company violates the law. To this day, the government persists in slow walking privacy reform. Anything from demanding drivers licenses to entering your face into a facial recognition database could easily employed.
All this leads to a very easy conclusion that this bill was written by MPs who have no clue how the internet works. Instead, MPs seemingly concluded that if a law was written, then the technology needed to comply with this bill will magically appear on its own to save the day. “Nerd harder”, if you will.
So, an interesting question is, although the experts don’t know how this bill would even work, let alone be legally constitutional, how would the MPs pushing the bill envision this bill even working? As it turns out, they don’t have a clue. From Press Progress:
Conservative MP Karen Vecchio, the bill’s sponsor, admitted during debate that she was not sure how to verify pornography users, but trusted the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security could brainstorm some good ideas:
“What is the best method? I would like to say to the member that, to be honest, I do not know what the best method is. That is why it is so important that we take this to committee so we can look at it.”
So, on the one hand, MPs are upset at experts because they consider the bill unworkable both from a technological and legal perspective. Yet, when MPs are asked how they think the bill would work, they respond by effectively saying that they don’t know, maybe the experts can figure that out. How hard can you facepalm at a response like that?
All this further validates my position that this is a bill written by people who have no idea how the internet works. They then just write a bill and hope someone can wave a magic wand to somehow make it all work. This despite the fact that there is no solution to trying to accomplish this that exists today.
One of my criticisms of the bill is the fact that VPNs do exist. As a result, the site blocking methods would easily be circumvented. How do MPs envision circling this problem?
Vecchio also acknowledged anyone could probably get around the verification system by using a VPN, but suggested the committee could figure out a solution to that too:
“We know VPNs are a concern. If someone is using a VPN, they can go in any country, so it is going to be bypassing some of that. This is exactly why we need to take this to committee, so we can talk about the technology and all these gaps in our systems.”
Once again, they have no answers, but they are hoping someone else can figure all that out. Again, we’re looking at a technologically impossible proposition here. How do you make all VPNs out there comply with this censorship law? You don’t. VPNs are financially motivated to skirt such blocks anyway and it would be foolish to believe that this law would change this landscape. The MP can talk in committee about this all he wants, but that MP will either leave disappointed or leave with a lie that a solution was found.
Another MP apparently admitted that the law is unworkable and, instead, took the stance that appearing to do something despite how unworkable the idea is is better than nothing:
Bloc Québécois MP Andréanne Larouche echoed this, but noted that even if teenagers did use VPNs to get around the law, the ends would justify the means as long as it creates additional barriers between minors and the “scourge” of online pornography:
“I am not a magician and I do not have a magic wand. No one can ignore the fact that this bill is not a silver bullet. A minor who wants to view pornography illegally could resort to circumvention methods like virtual private networks and so on to get around the age validation mechanisms … However, even if Bill S-210 does not turn out to be the silver bullet that completely eradicates this scourge, there is a good chance that it will have beneficial effects and further restrict access for minors.”
Yup, sure we are erecting the great firewall of Canada, curtailing freedom of expression, and wreaking havoc to our technological future, but if, someone, somewhere, somehow benefits in any small way, then its worth it. There’s a word to describe people who think this way: “moron”.
Other MPs apparently actually believe that this bill is directed at porn platforms even though it does not discriminate between websites:
Other MPs had different ideas. Conservative MP Michael Van Popka suggested that possibly the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – the Mounties – could administer a program to register and verify online pornography users:
“What is at the heart of the bill is that we tell the porn platforms to do their best to verify a person’s age using age verification tools prescribed and approved by the government before one grants them access. If one does that, one is within the law.
What are those prescribed tools, and who would administer the program? Would it be the CRTC, the RCMP or a new bureaucracy?
The answer is that we are going to have to wait and see, stay tuned. All that needs to be worked out.”
So, apparently, some MPs have not even bothered to read the bill. There is no provision in Bill S-210 that says that this bill only applies to websites that deal primarily with “explicit” material (whatever “explicit” even means in the first place).
More disturbingly is the idea that some MPs suggest that the RCMP could maintain a database of personal information. I’m sure minorities in this country would be thrilled that the RCMP would be able to have more surveillance powers over their day to day lives (yes, that was sarcasm). Essentially, anyone who decides, as adults, to watch a little more skin in a video will have to be treated like hardened criminals. It’s a pretty outrageous suggestion to say the least.
One MP thinks that a whole new bureaucracy could be created to oversee this:
NDP MP Lisa Marie Barron suggested personal data could be better safeguarded by tasking a “responsible third party service provider” with verifying pornography users rather than leaving it in the hands of the private sector:
“Many Canadians, of course rightly so, do not want their personal information to be provided to those who are seeking profit, so we need a responsible third party provider.”
It’s unclear if that means creating a new government agency to verify porn users. An NDP spokesperson told PressProgress they were only referring to a suggestion from a Senate committee about who could manage this personal information.
Yeah, “papers, please” indeed.
So, for this MP, we need to spend untold millions of dollars on a whole new bureacracy within the government all because someone might see a nipple online. If you want a great example of government waste or a colassal waste of taxpayers money, then this might be one of the prime examples of this at the federal level.
Probably the unfortunate thing in all of this is finding out that the Green Party also supported this whole nonsense:
Green Party MP Mike Morrice told PressProgress he voted for Bill S-210 despite its “clear shortcomings,” but remains hopeful the national security committee can work out the kinks:
“I was torn on this vote, between what seemed to me like a well-intentioned effort to safeguard against underage access to sexually explicit content and what Mr. Geist and others point out are some clear shortcomings when it comes to privacy … Ultimately, I decided to support sending it to committee to explore how concerns could be addressed through amendments.”
This is definitely disappointing to read. We’re talking about a bill no one knows how would work in any practical sense, no one knows how it would work technologically speaking, nor does anyone know how this could possibly pass constitutional muster, and this MP decided to vote for it hoping someone somewhere down the line figures it all out despite it being an impossible ask in the first place. It is precisely this kind of thinking that got us the failed Online News Act in the first place.
To be clear, the lack of answers is likely the result of the fact that there are no answers to any of these questions in the first place. The incompetence on display here is just pure belligerence on the part of MPs pushing this law in the first place. They wrote a law that no one knows how would be workable, and expected someone smarter than them to make it all happen despite the lack of clear guidance on how to proceed. This bill is pure wishful thinking and is only destined to create a huge mess later on down the road should it make it into the law books. We can all hope that this gets stalled enough to die on the order paper somewhere down the line and we can all be spared from the headaches that is caused by this bill.