NDP says it's considering options about support for much-criticized Senate porn bill

OTTAWA — Federal New Democrats won't say how they intend to vote on a bill that aims to keep minors from accessing sexually explicit material online, while the Conservatives say they're prepared to work on amending the controversial legislation.

The legislation would require websites like Pornhub to verify the age of their users, but privacy experts warn its language is overly broad and risks violating both free expression and the privacy of Canadians.

The Liberal government opposes the private member's bill, but the NDP, Bloc Québécois and Tories voted in favour of sending it to a House of Commons committee for study.

Ultimately, the committee heard from just three witnesses, including the senator who proposed the bill and the federal privacy commissioner, Philippe Dufresne, who recommended the scope of the bill be narrowed.

That's because of a Conservative filibuster, according to the NDP's public safety critic, Alistair MacGregor.

Frank Caputo, the Conservatives' critic for public safety, said in a statement that Tory MPs simply wanted to wrap up their work on another file about the prison transfer of serial killer Paul Bernardo.

The Tories "used every tool at their disposal to stop a real study into this plan," MacGregor said in a statement, adding this was "highly concerning" because it prevented the committee hearing from more experts.

But he won't reveal his party's position on the bill.

For it to pass without Liberal support, the NDP would need to vote in favour.

"Canadians deserve to know that when our kids access the internet, they’re protected from potential harms. At the same time, the government has a responsibility for protecting Canadians' privacy," MacGregor said in a statement.

"New Democrats are taking the time needed to consider our options closely on how best to move forward for all Canadians." A deputy minister at Canadian Heritage who did testify at the committee warned MPs it was a "highly problematic" piece of legislation, saying that as written, it could also apply to explicit content on streaming services such as Netflix.

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

Earlier this week, Dufresne launched a consultation process about how and when services be required to verify the age of their users. His office underlined that the technology to estimate an individual's age "is not precise."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has criticized Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre for saying a Tory government would enact a similar measure, saying it means Canadians would have to hand over personal information to "sketchy websites."

After the leader pledged his support, Poilievre's office clarified it would not allow for a digital ID system to be established or support moves that could infringe on Canadians' privacy rights.

The owners of Pornhub told The Canadian Press that if the law passes, they would consider blocking access to Canadians, explaining that the company is not prepared to collect the personal information of its users.

Rather, they are suggesting lawmakers require device manufactures like Apple to find a way to keep minors away from content like theirs.

Solomon Friedman, a partner and vice-president of compliance at Ethical Capital Partners, which owns Pornhub's parent company, Aylo, said in a recent interview they had asked to appear before the parliamentary committee studying the bill.

"By not having substantive hearings, Canadians are getting shortchanged and important decisions are being made about their internet access without full public participation," he said.

The bill was authored by Independent Sen. Julie Miville-Dechêne, and Conservative MP Karen Vecchio sponsored it in the House of Commons.

Vecchio's office says it expects the bill to be back in the House this fall.

Federal Justice Minister Arif Virani has said that the government's online harms legislation aims to achieve the same goal of protecting children, but in a way that would be less risky to Canadians' privacy.

Still, Conservative MP Garnett Genuis, who took part in the committee study, has been promoting the legislation as a way to better protect Canadian children. He's raised the issue at town halls with members of the Muslim and other cultural communities around Toronto and Vancouver.

Caputo said in his statement on Friday the bill "was studied extensively" when it was before the Senate.

He said Conservatives "are now prepared to work with the NDP and other parties on bringing common sense amendments at the report stage to strengthen the bill before passage."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2024.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press