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BCCLA and OpenMedia React: Bill S-210 leaving committee stage without adequate study

Moved forward with no witnesses or amendments, Bill-S210 is not fit for service

Vancouver, BC / unceded Coast Salish Territories - The BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and OpenMedia are disappointed that the House Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security (“SECU”) has allowed the deeply flawed age verification bill, S-210, to return to the House to face a third reading without amendment or meaningful study. We urge Members of Parliament to vote against the bill or send it back to the committee for full study. If passed, the bill would require organizations hosting sexually explicit material to use as-yet unidentified forms of age verification technology to prevent Canadian residents under the age of 18 from accessing that material or face substantial fines and website blocking within Canada. The extreme overbreadth and sloppy drafting of this bill will result in a law extremely vulnerable to constitutional challenge and likely to infringe the Charter-protected rights of hundreds of thousands before courts have an opportunity to consider its validity.

At SECU, substantive study of the bill was effectively blocked by Conservative filibuster tactics and ultimately brushed aside so that Bill C-70, the government’s foreign interference package, could be rushed through. As a result, SECU had only heard approximately an hour of testimony from witnesses other than the senator who created the bill, no testimony from witnesses outside of the government, and had no opportunity to even begin a clause-by-clause review of Bill S-210 when their study period expired on June 7, 2024. As a result, Bill S-210 is being automatically returned to the House of Commons and will face third reading without any amendments that could address the deep flaws of the bill, an unacceptable result for such a consequential piece of legislation.

Recommendations and concerns with the bill are detailed in a BCCLA brief to SECU. These include concerns related to the overly-broad definition of ‘sexually explicit material’ that would be subject to age restrictions, flawed court procedure that excludes the creators of the content and imposes extreme penalties, and privacy concerns about the current state of age-verification technology. If the bill becomes law without amendment, we are likely to see sweeping censorship of the internet by companies in their efforts to comply with the bill, including censorship of unproblematic material with clear artistic, scientific, or educational merit. The BCCLA and OpenMedia share the concerns of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) about the effects this legislation will have on vulnerable members of our community, including young victims of non-consensual intimate image distribution.

Existing age verification technology includes ID checking, confirming personal information from banks, and software that scans a user’s face to estimate their age, all of which present inherent privacy risks. Despite this, the bill treats privacy as an afterthought: a factor that must be considered, but not a right that must be upheld, when evaluating age verification methods. The website blocking it requires is an extreme, draconian remedy that will prevent adults from being able to access perfectly legal content, presenting an unjustifiable infringement of freedom of expression and thought that is likely to fall disproportionately on sexual minorities. The use of the definition of sexually explicit material from a specific criminal offence without the other requirements of that offence will also create much broader restrictions than currently exist offline. Taken together, the bill poses an unprecedented threat to freedom of expression and privacy in Canada.

“The Conservatives’ support of Bill S-210, to the point of blocking substantive study at committee, is a shameful departure from their advocacy for Canadians’ privacy in Parliamentary studies of government bills like C-27. We hope that MPs of conscience from all parties will vote to defeat this bill or return it to committee for the study it requires.” – Aislin Jackson, Policy Staff Counsel, BCCLA

“We need safer online experiences for young Canadians, particularly young girls, trans and nonbinary people, but measures taken towards this goal need to be proportionate, clearly defined, effective, and human rights-upholding. Bill S-210 is none of these.” - Pam Hrick, Executive Director & General Counsel, Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)

“Canadian MPs are being asked to vote through legislation they have neither studied or understood. No non-government witnesses on Bill S-210 were called, and no amendments were even considered, let alone passed. Given S-210’s astonishing scope and vast potential to harm Canadians’ privacy and access to information, MPs must vote against this dangerous bill, or send it back for the proper study it has been denied.” – Matt Hatfield, Executive Director, OpenMedia


Media Contacts:

Aislin Jackson, Policy Staff Counsel for the BCCLA, at 604-687-2919 ext. 116 or [email protected]

Matt Hatfield, Executive Director for OpenMedia, at 1-888-441-2640 ext. 0 or [email protected]

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