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The Bloc Québécois is considering an amendment to the online harms bill designed to ensure that people viewing pornography online are over the age of 18.

Rhéal Fortin, the Bloc’s justice critic, said he was surprised that the government did not include age verification in the bill to stop children viewing sexually explicit material online.

Mr. Fortin said in an interview that age verification would be “one of my first preoccupations” when Bill C-63 is studied by MPs, and he would be looking at tabling an amendment.

Last year, the government suggested it would bring in a provision making porn sites verify that its users are adults, but when the online harms bill was unveiled that provision was not included.

Instead, the bill says that platforms should have age-appropriate design features, without specifying age verification. It also contains a number of provisions to protect children from harm, including requiring platforms to take down child-abuse material within 24 hours.

Critics have said that uploading government ID to porn sites or verifying age through facial recognition could compromise privacy, although advocates say third-party sites could verify people’s age and ensure that porn sites cannot access such information.

Justice Minister Arif Virani, questioned last week about age verification in the Commons justice committee, said “the idea of uploading and the age-verification measure, such as one’s government ID, is something that has been roundly criticized, including by people like law enforcement who’d be concerned about what that kind of privacy disclosure would do in terms of perpetuating financial crimes against Canadians.”

The minister told MPs on the committee he would be willing to look at “good faith” suggestions for improving the bill.

“What we need to be doing here is keeping Canadians safe by ensuring their age-appropriate design measures have been informed by a conversation between law enforcement, government and the platforms themselves,” he told MPs.

“There are examples of how to do this and we’re keen to work on those examples and to get this important bill into this committee so we can debate what are the best ways forward.”

A private member’s bill is progressing through Parliament that would introduce age verification for porn sites. It has gained the backing of the Bloc, Conservatives and NDP, as well as a clutch of Liberal MPs.

Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne, who wrote the private member’s bill, said that a person’s age could be verified through third-party sites.

Ms. Miville-Dechêne’s bill, known as Bill S-210, has passed the Senate and some Commons stages and is now slated to go into committee for further scrutiny. It is further along in the legislative process than the government’s online harms bill, which was introduced last month.

The senator said she would welcome “any initiative by MPs to include in legislation age verification to limit access of children to online pornography.”

“Bill S-210 has been studied extensively since 2020, it is moving towards the finish line in the House of Commons. The protection of children from exposure to pornography is an urgent public health issue. Children have been exposed to often violent porn videos on free porn sites for 15 years,” she said.

In December, 2022, the Senate passed an amendment by Ms. Miville-Dechêne to bring in age verification for porn sites to Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act. But the government did not accept it, saying the legislation was the wrong place for it and suggesting the forthcoming online harms bill would be the appropriate place.

The government leader in the Senate, Marc Gold, said at the time the online harms bill would be “the most appropriate forum, in the context of that legislation, to discuss this important issue.”

Lianna McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, has expressed concern that a generation of children is having their understanding of sexual relationships shaped by misogynistic adult content. She argued that the over-18 rule on buying adult magazines in a store should apply to accessing porn online.

Sol Friedman, a partner in Ethical Capital Partners, a Canadian private-equity firm that owns Pornhub and other porn sites, said the company was in favour of age verification, including through an amendment to the online harms bill. But he believes it should be implemented at the device level – for example, during software updates or when buying a device.

He warned that people under the age of 18 would migrate to other sites if certain porn sites have to verify ages but not all.

Other jurisdictions are looking at device-based age verification, he said, including the Spanish Data Protection Agency.

“We support age verification that is effective at ensuring young people cannot access adult content,” he said. “The only solution that accomplishes this is device-based.”

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