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The author of a private members’ bill intended to prevent children from accessing pornography online is accusing Canada of being out of step with other countries that have already acted on the issue, as the federal government continues to oppose the legislation.

A group of 15 Liberal MPs broke ranks with the government last month and voted alongside the Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Québécois to push the bill, known as the Protecting Young Persons From Exposure to Pornography Act, or Bill S-210, toward its final stages in the Commons. But the Heritage Minister’s office told The Globe and Mail that the government will continue to withhold support for the bill, citing privacy concerns.

The author of the bill, Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne, said on Thursday that she finds the government’s stance confusing.

“The Liberal government’s opposition to Bill S-210 is puzzling, considering the bill is supported by all other parties in the House,” she said. “It also contradicts earlier signals from the government. Most objections to S-210 are based on fearmongering and fallacies, and the issues of privacy and data security can be thoroughly addressed in regulations.”

“The Canadian government is going against the tide of countries and jurisdictions that are legislating to protect children from exposure to online pornography, including the European Union, the U.K., France, Germany, Spain,” she added.

Under Bill S-210, commercial websites that make pornography available would be required to verify that users who access the material are at least 18 years old. But the bill leaves the specifics of how this would be done to be determined later, through regulations. Critics have said this age verification process could compromise user privacy if it requires people to share personal information, such as photo identification.

The government suggested last year that a different piece of legislation, the government’s own long-awaited online safety bill, which has yet to be published, may include measures to prevent children from accessing explicit material. Government officials and MPs suggested at the time that they did not oppose age verification.

This week, Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, said he is planning to introduce measures to shield children from pornography. He told the El Pais newspaper that sexually explicit material online is affecting the development of teenagers.

German regulators told The Globe and Mail last week that they are preparing to ask their country’s internet providers to block Pornhub and other websites operated by Aylo, an online pornography company owned by a Canadian private equity firm, over its failure to comply with Germany’s laws on age verification. Aylo has challenged the move in court.

In Canada, Bill S-210 has cleared the Senate and second reading in the House of Commons, and is now set to go to a Commons committee.

The group of Liberal MPs who voted with opposition parties in favour of the bill in December, at its second reading, include John McKay, who has successfully shepherded several private members’ bills through Parliament. These bills, which originate with individual MPs or Senators rather than the government, usually have little chance of becoming law without government support.

Lisa Marie Barron, an NDP MP, told the Commons during a debate on the bill in November that many visitors to pornography websites are boys under the age of 10. She said exposure to sexually explicit material can distort teenagers’ ideas about sex and relationships.

Ariane Joazard-Belizaire, a spokesperson for Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge, told The Globe the bill would create privacy issues, but that the government wants to pursue measures to protect children online.

“What’s most important for us is protecting minors and the duty to protect children who are spending more and more time online,” she said in a statement. “We are listening to the experts and Bill S-210 is fundamentally flawed as drafted. We’ve looked to better and effective approaches. Our approach will be responsible and keep minors safer online, while protecting the privacy, security, and free expression of all Canadians.”

Canadian experts on child protection say it is too easy for young people to access pornography online.

“In Canada, recent surveys show over 30 per cent of kids aged 9 to 13 have encountered pornography online without seeking it,” Lianna McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said in an e-mail.

“Given that online service providers have no requirements to gatekeep who accesses harmful or explicit content to Canadians, we are glad to see the Senate is drawing a line in the sand on upholding values aimed at keeping children safe online in the same way we do offline.”

Aylo said in a statement that the company supports age verification, but this verification should be done on the device used to access explicit material, not the websites that provide it, and that any law must preserve user safety and privacy.

The statement added that the company believes the collection of users’ personal information puts users’ safety at risk, and that some users will instead visit sites that do not comply with age verification requirements or otherwise find ways to skirt the law.

Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa’s Canada Research Chair in internet law, said Bill S-210 is a threat to privacy and freedom of expression, and would mandate the blocking of websites. He said age verification frequently involves facial scanning, or uploading government-issued identity documents to services based in foreign countries.

“The bill as drafted is wildly overbroad, capturing general social media and search sites. Other jurisdictions have narrowed to sites where a ‘substantial portion’ of the content is sexually explicit,” he said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included a quoted statement provided by the online pornography company Aylo, from a spokesperson named Ian Andrews. After publication, Aylo acknowledged that Ian Andrews is a pseudonym they have used to protect the identity of their employees, who are frequently targeted.

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