This article originally appeared in Canadian Affairs.
By Daniel Dorman, November 21, 2023
“It is up to us to stop seeing [technological] progress… as a stream of unlimited blessings, and rather view it as a gift from on high, sent down for an extremely intricate trial of free will,” Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said.
In Canada, where online child sexual exploitation has risen significantly over the past decade, and where children can easily access explicit material, we are failing that trial.
According to Statistics Canada, from 2014 to 2020, police reported more than 40,000 incidents of online child sexploitation and incidents increased during the pandemic. Police-reported incidents of making or distributing child pornography rose to 7,400 in 2022. Cybertip.ca, a national tip line, says that online sexual luring is up by more than 800 per cent in five years.
Beyond the issue of direct exploitation, there is another serious challenge of children accessing explicit and violent material online.
A Canadian study of 470 adolescents found that 98 per cent had been exposed to pornography, with the average age of first exposure at 12 years old. The effects of early exposure to explicit content can include an increase in aggressive sexual behaviour, depressive symptoms, anxiety and delinquent behaviour, according to Alberta Health Services, a provincial health authority.
In non-digital spaces, it is not controversial for laws to limit children’s access to harmful substances, such as drugs and alcohol. It is time for the government to introduce age-verification requirements for online platforms that host explicit content. (Even Pornhub, a Canadian-owned porn site, is reported to have lobbied Ottawa to block adult websites on kids’ cell-phones by default).
Earlier this year, Member of Parliament Chris Bittle, then the parliamentary secretary to the Heritage Minister, implied that the government rejected a Senate amendment to include age verification in the Online Streaming Act because it was outside the scope of that legislation and because he hoped a forthcoming online safety bill would address the issue.
The government is expected to announce this online safety bill, known as the Online Harms Act, before the end of this year. That bill, which has been the subject of wide-ranging public and expert consultations since 2021, is expected to be controversial because it aims to regulate harmful online speech.
The expert advisory group that was consulted on the bill recognized that “children must have enhanced protections because of their inherent vulnerability” and that “existing laws governing digital spaces fall short.” But experts expressed significant disagreement on the scope of the needed legislation.
“Some experts stated that a legislative and regulatory framework would benefit from addressing child sexual abuse content differently than hate speech. They explained that it is notoriously difficult to identify hate speech… In contrast… child sexual exploitation content… is often easier to identify, and likely warrants a stricter response.”
Reportedly, “A few experts suggested the introduction of two separate regimes — a take-down regime for illegal content and a systems-based approach for legal yet harmful content.”
The government should listen to these experts.
It would be unwise to try to address blatantly illegal content like online child sexploitation in the same bill that tries to regulate ‘lawful but awful’ content. If not bundled into controversial legislation, the former would be likely to attract broad political support, enabling the government to act quickly to protect kids. By contrast, the latter is likely to become mired in controversy and opposition given the complex nature of the activities it seeks to regulate.
Instead, the government should pass targeted legislation to address kids’ safety. Expanding on the expert advisory group’s recommendation for “two separate regimes,” a three-stage approach might be productive.
First, pass something like a ‘Protecting Children Online Act’ to deal exclusively with the removal of child sexual abuse and exploitation material from the internet.
Second, prioritize passing age-verification legislation such as Bill S-210, An Act to restrict young persons’ online access to sexually explicit material. This bill is already at second reading before the House of Commons.
Third, pursue debate on a separate bill to remove hate speech and other ‘lawful but awful’ online content.
Legislation to protect our kids online is too important to tie to a broad, controversial bill. If the government is serious about protecting children, they’ll address egregious abuses as quickly as possible.
Daniel Dorman is the communications manager at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. He writes independently on political and cultural issues.