Yes, Canada’s Age Verification Applies to Every Site, Not Just Dedicated Adult Sites

Some people out there are apparently trying to argue that this applies to a handful of sites. That doesn’t seem to be the case.

When I wrote my analysis of Bill S-210 late last year, one of the things I noted was the fact that the age verification legislation covers all websites. This is a very key distinction from some of the other age verification law efforts which establishes thresholds for how much adult content must be on the site before it is within the scope of other bills.

Of course, this is far from the only problem with such legislation as well. Another huge problem is that the technology that is needed to effectively enforce this doesn’t really exist. So, even when such a law applies to a small handful of websites, there is likely enormous privacy issues with how much data is expected to be collected along with other problems such as free speech issues among other things.

With Bill S-210, however, the problem is even worse because there simply is no threshold for determining what websites are scoped into the bill and what isn’t. Every website is simply scoped in. Before you assume this is another bad Liberal party idea, this is actually a Conservative party backed initiative that is also backed by the NDP and the Bloc. In this instance, the Liberal Party is the one against this internet censorship effort for a change. It’s politically weird again.

Another particularly bad aspect of Bill S-210 is the fact that even the MPs who are pushing for this legislation have no clue how they expect to implement it. One after another offered little to say about how this is actually expected to work. Some MPs opted to simply say that they are going to refer the bill to committee so committee can work out the details. Ultimately, it’s a case of handing committee a fools errand as there is no practical way to implement a bill like this onto the internet.

Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne, someone who is credited for being the brainchild of this horrible legislation, has recently suggested that the legislation only targets specifically adult oriented websites:

Although Bill S-210 would require adult websites to verify users’ ages, it does not specify how. Options could include a digital ID system or services that can estimate age based on a webcam scan of a user’s face.

Adult websites that don’t verify ages would face fines of up to $250,000 on their first offence.

The bill would require age verification methods that are reliable, protect user privacy and personal information, collect and use personal information solely for verification purposes and any personal information would be destroyed, Miville-Dechêne sa

She said porn sites could use third party companies that are independent, accredited and experts in age verification.

“So the kid arrives on a porn platform. tries to go in, is automatically directed to a third party age verifier,” she said.

This appears to be a classic case of a senator who doesn’t understand her own bill. Either she never read her own bill or she hastily put it together without careful consideration. Either way, this is a clear demonstration of her lack of understanding of Bill S-210. There is no provision that specifically identifies websites where these laws apply. Simply put, it applies to all websites.

University law professor, Michael Geist, noted that lead lobbyists have confirmed that the intent of the legislation is to be applied to all websites and not just specific adult websites:

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.

Indeed, omitting thresholds definitely in the bill appears to be no accident. In fact, it appears to be an intentional omission – perhaps even to maximize profit on top of it all.

Another comment by the senator also further highlights how little she knows what her bill is trying to do. Senator Miville-Dechêne said that privacy can be protected under this legislation because it requires that information be destroyed. Yes, the bill does have this provision where those that collect this vast trove of information are expected to destroy the information once they collect it. The problem is that there are no penalties for failing to do so.

Indeed, as I noted in my analysis, there are absolutely no provisions in this legislation saying that there are any penalties at all for failure to comply with such provisions. As a result, this would likely fall back on Canada’s existing and horribly out of date existing privacy laws. As I’ve pointed out for years now, if a company violates Canadian privacy laws, Canada’s privacy commissioners simply have the power to send a strongly worded letter, saying effectively “don’t do that again.”

At best, Canadian’s would have to file a lawsuit against such companies on their own, but that leaves the onus on proving that the damages caused by the company onto the victims of such a privacy violation. This doesn’t even get into how successful an effort like that would be in court.

Where does that leave the company in question? Free to essentially thumb their nose at the law, create a copy of that data, and sell it off to other unscrupulous third parties for massive profits. If people get hurt because of that, well, the companies don’t care. They made their millions and are going to keep doing so knowing that there is nothing the government can do about it.

With a lack of repercussions built into the bill for violating the destruction clauses, the criticisms of this being a massive threat to privacy still stands.

The defences to this bill are woefully inadequate and simply fall flat on their face when the text of the legislation is actually present in the debate. Nothing really new these days given the collective disasters of the Online News Act and the Online Streaming Act, but still, doesn’t detract from the very real concerns of this legislation.

Like the prototype age verification law that was attempted to be shoehorned into the Online Streaming Act (which mercifully got shot down), Bill S-210, as it stands today, is badly thought out and fails to take into consideration the consequences of what it aims to do. As a result, it is only destined to do considerably more harm than any good it could ever hope to achieve.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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