What’s wrong with Bill S-210? An OpenMedia FAQ
It’s been called the “Most dangerous Canadian Internet bill you’ve never heard of”.
It’s been called the “Most dangerous Canadian Internet bill you’ve never heard of”. But some folk will tell you it’s just a common sense approach to protecting kids — and who could say no to that! So which is it?
OpenMedia breaks down for you what’s going on with Bill S-210, and its three biggest problems.
Bill S-210, an Act to restrict young persons’ online access to sexually explicit material, is a private member’s bill that could destroy Canada’s Internet as we know it.
If S-210 is passed without major fixes, Canadians could see most Internet services require us to provide a government-issued ID to log on; have our faces repeatedly scanned and stored in leaky databases to simply live our online lives; and see many websites and services that refuse to participate in this draconian system blocked in Canada altogether. Services that aren’t willing to use unsafe age verification methods may try to sanitize their entire network, meaning automatic algorithmic scanning of all our user content, and the posts that flow through them.
Protecting kids is important, but not at this cost. But these are foreseeable consequences of S-210’s current text unless we act to fix it. Read on to learn more about each problem and what you can do about it!
Of course! Reasonable, proportionate efforts to reduce the exposure of kids to this material is something we can all support.
But overly broad restrictions can cause a lot of harm for limited benefit. In the offline world, we take reasonable and proportionate measures to minimize the exposure of children to sexually explicit material and have for many decades now.
But we don’t lock down or surveil the whole adult world for this purpose – and that’s what Bill S-210’s wilder provisions currently do.
There’s three major problems with S-210:
a. Bill S-210 would padlock off access to the majority of the Internet, for children AND many adults. Section 5 of S-210 targets any commercial organization that "makes available" explicit adult material - where "making available" means "transmitting, distributing or selling". The problem? Most of the internet earns commercial revenue for someone, and much of the Internet allows user uploads that sometimes contain adult material. That means age-gating FAR more than just adult websites whose primary business is selling adult content. It encompasses general purpose websites like Reddit, blog sites, search engines like Google, and maybe even your internet service provider itself!
Does that sound like a drafting error? Section 9(5)(a) makes clear that impacting non-adult websites isn’t a bug; it’s the intention. Canadian courts are told that if a website hasn’t complied with S-210 and blocking it will prevent access to non-adult material, that’s entirely permissible and foreseen under S-210.
Locking most of the Internet this way is not reasonable or proportionate. It will deny young people access to many of the basic discussions, socializing and learning spaces of our times. And it will deny adults who are unable and unwilling to get through S-210’s internet lock access to those spaces too, denying them their fundamental rights.
But why wouldn’t an adult want to or be able to comply? Read on.
b. Bill S-210 would compromise the intimate online lives of Canadian adults, making us vulnerable to multiple serious harms. The problem is that S-210 permits companies to adopt cheap, fundamentally unsafe internet lock technologies, putting Canadians at risk of blackmail, being outed as LGBTQ+, career loss, and more.
Information about our intimate interests and identity is amongst the most sensitive data about us that exists. Bill S-210 nods towards that high sensitivity in Section 11(2), where it asks that companies use methods that respect privacy and destroy our information after verification.
The problem? There's no enforcement. Bill S-210 just asks nicely — there’s no penalties for companies that don’t destroy this highly sensitive information about us, intentionally or by accident. That’s a recipe for disaster. Asking thousands of adult websites and millions of general-purpose Internet services to store our face or official ID and simply hoping they won’t misplace or misuse it isn’t just risky — it is setting up a system guaranteed to fail.
So what's the cost? Breaching our intimate privacy is about more than just personal embarrassment; it will cause multiple real harms. Bad actors who hack into this data will use it to extort and blackmail people; LGBTQ2IA+ Canadians who may not have a safe environment around them will be outed; and many more may suffer serious career or social consequences.
Pierre Trudeau once said the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, and Canada has lived by that principle since. Unless the worst privacy-compromising age verification methods of S-210 are plainly ruled out, Canada will start breaking that principle, creating thousands of government-mandated leaky adult activity databases across the country and in foreign hands.
c. Bill S-210 enforces compliance by blocking sites and services that refuse to put on the Internet lock. That’s a crude, sledgehammer approach that will go wrong in several ways. Most obviously, some services will be unwilling to comply and will be blocked or voluntarily block Canadian users. But because website blocking is a blunt tool, many other services that share domains or IP addresses with that service may also be affected.
And here’s something that’s indirect, but huge. Services that want to stay in Canada but not lock themselves up will need to ensure there’s no risk of explicit adult material appearing through them — remember, there’s no threshold in S-210 for how much material is being shared or whether the platform knew or intended it was there.
That means automated adult content detection and automatic removal will be the norm on these services. And that will produce a censored Internet well beyond S-210’s written intent. While Section 6(2) creates an exception for explicit material with artistic or educational merit, bots don’t recognize art, or an intent to educate and inform.
For this reason, Bill S-210 could erase basic educational material from the open Internet in Canada, seriously compromising the access to information rights of many Canadians, with particular impact on LGBTQ+ users and creators.
Currently, no. Several democracies with similar rights frameworks to Canada, including France and Australia, have examined this question. Both concluded that no current technology is adequate to the task of verifying our age while protecting our privacy.
But in a sea of imperfect technologies, there’s two age verification approaches that are both cheap for services to adopt and particularly bad: directly providing our personal ID to websites, and facial recognition software that purports to identify your age through your web camera. Neither of these approaches are ruled out by S-210.
If there is any safe future for age verification, it will have to be through technologies that generate a permanent adult ‘token’ — a reusable verification that checks your age only once when you generate it, and that you can attach to your device. If one application provides the service of generating that token for you, and you can use that token anonymously anywhere you take it on the Internet, there will be at least some separation between the invasive process of proving you are an adult, and linking your real life personal identity to every page you access, each day. Bill S-210 could at least make clear that this separation is necessary; it doesn't.
The analysis performed by our peer countries leaves open the possibility of adopting that kind of technology in the future, while being clear that the existing options today cannot safely do the job. Canadians are no less deserving of fundamental protections than French and Australian citizens.
The issues with Bill S-210’s approach are so deep and foundational that we believe S-210 should be rejected, and new legislation drafted, either within the government’s upcoming online harms bill or separately.
However, if Bill S-210 moves forward, three minimum fixes are critical before it passes:
Narrowed scope: S-210 must only target businesses that make a meaningful share of their revenue from knowingly and intentionally distributing explicit adult content. This would capture the significant majority of adult material on the Internet, while greatly reducing potential harm to other information and expression spaces.
Mandatory privacy: the bill must explicitly rule out any age verification methods that create a risk of services retaining our biometrics (face scans) or ID uploads, and require the same type of rights analysis that Australia and France performed before approving ANY verification technology for use.
No website blocking: The website blocking provision of S-210 must be removed, or limited to only extreme and persistent offenders who distribute otherwise illegal content, such as child abuse material (CSAM) or nonconsensually shared material (NCSII).
Without these fixes, we believe Bill S-210 will do far more harm than good.
Yes. Most private member bills, particularly Senate bills, have a long and difficult road to follow to become law. Successful legislation in Canada is usually initiated in the House of Commons, most often by the government in power.
But as of January 2024, Bill S-210 is most of the way to becoming law. It has been approved by the Senate, and was voted through second reading at the House of Commons.
All that’s left is a potentially brief study by the MPs on our Public Safety (SECU) committee before a third reading and final vote in the House of Commons - and then it will be the law.
That’s why it is CRITICAL that MPs hear from us now with our concerns about Bill S-210.
Tell your MP about your concerns with Bill S-210. You can take action with OpenMedia’s S-210 action in just a few seconds to let them know what you think!
Your words make a huge difference. Green MP Mike Morrice has already withdrawn his support for S-210 after hearing about its issues from concerned constituents; other MPs WILL follow if they hear (polite, respectful) concerns about S-210 from you.
Our MPs need to know now that while everyone supports protecting kids from inappropriate content, Bill S-210’s extreme provisions simply aren’t appropriate for Canada.
If you haven’t taken action yet, click here!