No more Pornhub? That will depend on what happens with a Senate bill

Author: Editors Desk Source: CBC News:
February 20, 2024 at 01:08
The Pornhub website is shown on a computer screen. A Senate bill is looking to make it harder for minors to access pornography online. (The Canadian Press)
The Pornhub website is shown on a computer screen. A Senate bill is looking to make it harder for minors to access pornography online. (The Canadian Press)
Bill proposes to enshrine age verification requirement

The owners of Pornhub say blocking access to Canadians is among options they're considering as they try to persuade parliamentarians to reject an approach for age verification outlined in a controversial Senate bill.

"We've taken different options in different jurisdictions," said Solomon Friedman, a partner and vice-president of compliance at Ethical Capital Partners, which owns Pornhub's parent company, Aylo.

"I don't want to speculate on (the bill) in its current state. We're going to committee to ensure that the wrong legislation doesn't get passed."

A House of Commons committee is set to study legislation proposed by Independent Sen. Julie Miville-Dechêne that would require Canadians to verify their age to access porn online.

The bill outlines a range of concerns about minors having access to sexually explicit material, including the potential to develop a pornography addiction and the reinforcement of harmful gender stereotypes.

It proposes companies that host such material ensure young people cannot access it, under threat of fines between $250,000 and $500,000.

The legislation doesn't specify how sites should verify a user's age, but options include the establishment of a digital ID system or services that can estimate an individual's age based on a visual scan of their face.

Such suggestions have prompted widespread concern from privacy experts about the overarching impacts, from the risks associated with asking Canadians to share personal information with an external provider to the use of measures such as facial recognition technology.

A politician poses outside of a Roman-style building.
Sen. Julie Miville-Dechêne sponsored the Senate bill that is now set to be examined by a House of Commons committee. (Jacques Corriveau/CBC)

Others have warned age verification could lead to a stifling of free expression, as some companies would likely rather block access to their sites.

Others, they warn, could simply find ways to skirt the rules.

Examples of laws abroad

Sitting at a cafe in downtown Ottawa last week, Friedman said his company shares concerns about minors accessing Pornhub, one of the largest porn sites on the internet.

"We want no children on our platform whatsoever."

Not only is that from a moral standpoint, he says, but also a commercial one.

In 2023, his firm acquired ownership of Pornhub's parent company as it was reeling from reports that exploded in late 2020 about the site being home to countless examples of child sexual abuse material and other images and videos uploaded without an individual's consent.

The reports led payment companies such as Visa and MasterCard to pull their services from the site.

Pornhub scrubbed millions of unverified videos from its platform and put in new safety protocols.

Similar laws requiring internet porn sites to verify a user's age have been passed in several U.S. states, including Louisiana. After it required that a government ID be used to access Pornhub, traffic took a nosedive.

After Utah passed a bill that Friedman said did not include an option to use a government ID, Pornhub blocked access altogether to residents of that state.

Friedman argued such laws will not achieve the desired effect of shielding children from sexually graphic material, but will only push them to even darker corners of the internet to sites that may not comply with the law.

What the company is pushing for instead is for the onus to be put on manufacturers of devices being used to access sites, rather than on the sites themselves.

"We will never ever take the private identifying information of our users," he said.

"(We) will always comply with the law," he said.

"That's either by imposing the solution, not operating ... or in addition to all those, challenging these in law, if we think that they violate some higher legal principle like the Constitution."

So far, Liberal MPs have been the only ones to vote against the proposed law.

New Democrats, Bloc Quebecois and Conservatives voted in favour of sending the bill to committee.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian said in a statement that New Democrats supported the bill because of its intent to protect minors.

A man in a suit sitting in front of a bookshelf.
Federal Justice Minister Arif Virani says upcoming legislation to protect against online harms will look carefully at those that most affect children. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"We look forward to examining the bill at the committee, including through the testimony of community, health and public safety experts, to understand the full impact of the proposed legislation."

Tories have routinely raised concerns about children's access to sexually explicit material, while also decrying  government efforts to regulate social media companies as censorship.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre's office did not respond to a request for comment by publication deadline.

Ontario MP Karen Vecchio, who sponsored the bill in the House, told MPs back in December that she agreed personal information shouldn't be collected by individual sites.

However, she expressed hope that a solution can be found as technology advances.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has long promised to legislate new protections against online harms, including those that most affect children.

Justice Minister Arif Virani has signalled the upcoming bill will put a major focus on children's safety while also respecting freedom of expression.

When asked about it directly, his office declined to say whether age verification would be a part of the measures it's considering.

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