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The Justice Minister says the Online Harms Act leaves room for age-appropriate design options

OTTAWA – The federal justice minister said Wednesday that the Online Harms Act includes measures to protect children by using age-appropriate web design.

OTTAWA – The federal justice minister said Wednesday that the Online Harms Act includes measures to protect children by using age-appropriate web design.

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

That bill aims to oblige websites to verify the age of users and prevent minors from gaining access to ‘sexually explicit material’.

Privacy experts have criticized the Senate legislation for putting Canadians’ personal information at risk, which they would have to provide to access material like pornography.

Virani said uploading a government-issued ID to view content on a website “could trigger a slew of economic and fraudulent crimes” by “nefarious actors operating abroad.”

Others, including federal privacy commissioner Philippe Dufresne, have called for limiting the scope of the bill and focusing on sites whose primary purpose is to offer “sexually explicit material” for commercial reasons.

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

Experts warn that the Senate bill could require 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 liability.

Independent Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne, author of the bill, says it is necessary to protect minors from viewing explicit and violent sexual material online, which she says is in many ways harmful to their development.

Virani said Wednesday that his online harms bill, introduced in February, includes a provision requiring companies to protect children by using age-appropriate design features, which he said “could mean different things.”

“The idea of ​​making sure there is some kind of age-appropriate design is critical. That’s why it’s in the legislation,” he said.

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

However, Virani’s bill is not without its critics.

Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and his group have criticized a proposal in the bill that would create a new regulator to oversee how companies reduce exposure to online harm, especially for children.

Poilivre regularly accuses Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of trying to censor opinions he doesn’t like. He says the Conservatives would rather try to better protect children online by targeting criminals, “rather than creating more bureaucracy.”

The bill would force social media platforms to outline how they plan to reduce risks and require them to immediately remove certain content, including images of child sex abuse and intimate images shared without consent.

The legislation forces companies to act under the threat of fines and asks them to publish security plans detailing how they tackle online harm.

The bill also aims to introduce stricter penalties for hate-related offenses under the Criminal Code. Critics, including civil society advocates, have targeted these changes, saying the threat of stricter measures could chill freedom of expression.

Virani and the justice department have defended the harsher sentences, saying they would only be applied in the most extreme cases.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2024.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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