Justice minister says Online Harms Act leaves room for age-appropriate design options

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The federal justice minister said Wednesday the government’s online harms bill includes measures to protect children using age-appropriate web design.

Arif Virani is touting that bill as a better solution to concerns about children accessing sexually explicit material online, versus a Senate bill currently making its way through the debate process.

The Senate bill would force websites to verify users’ ages and keep minors from accessing “sexually explicit material.”

Privacy experts say that bill poses a risk to Canadians’ personal information, which they would have to provide to access material like pornography.

Virani said uploading a piece of government-issued ID to view content on a website “could open up a whole host of economic and fraudulent crimes” by “nefarious actors that operate abroad.”

Others, including federal privacy commissioner Philippe Dufresne, have called for the bill’s scope to be narrowed to focus on sites whose main purpose is to provide “sexually explicit material” for commercial reasons.

He told a House of Commons committee this week that, as written, the bill raises questions about what will be captured.

Experts warn the Senate bill could mandate social-media platforms and streaming services like Netflix to verify the age of their users, which could lead companies to block access rather than risk the liability.

Independent Sen. Julie Miville-Dechêne, who authored the bill, says it is needed to shield minors from viewing graphic and violent sexual material online, which she says is detrimental to their development in many ways.

Virani said on Wednesday that his online harms bill, tabled in February, contains a provision requiring companies to protect children through using age-appropriate design features, which he says “can mean different things.”

“The notion of ensuring that there is some sort of age-appropriate design is critical. That’s why it’s in the legislation,” he said.

“That’s why we need that legislation voted on and into committee so we can hear some good suggestions.”

Virani’s bill is not without its own critics, however.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and his caucus have criticized a proposal in the bill that creates a new regulator to police how companies are reducing the exposure to harm online, particularly for children.

Poilievre routinely accuses Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of trying to censor opinions he doesn’t like, saying that Conservatives would rather try to better protect children online through targeting criminals, “instead of creating more bureaucracy.”

The bill would compel social-media platforms to outline how they plan to reduce risk and require them to promptly remove certain content, including child sex-abuse images and intimate images shared without consent.

The legislation pushes companies to act under threat of fines and asks that they publish safety plans detailing how they are addressing online harms.

The bill also seeks to usher in stiffer punishments for hate-related Criminal Code offences. Civil-society advocates have taken aim at those changes, saying the threat of tougher measures could chill free speech.

Virani and justice officials have defended the harsher penalties by saying they would only be used in the most extreme examples.

The government has not prioritized the online harms bill for debate since introducing it more than three months ago.

A spokesman for Government House leader Steven MacKinnon said on Wednesday that the Liberals are busying debating a range of bills, including the fall economic statement, pharmacare and the spring budget bill, and did not provide a timeline for when the Online Harms Act could come up for debate.