Revisions to Broadcasting Act won't cover online porn, heritage minister says

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OTTAWA — Sweeping updates to the Broadcasting Act will not cover pornography or sexually exploitive content online, the federal heritage minister says.

Steven Guilbeault told the House of Commons ethics committee Monday that a new regulator will handle child pornography and non-consensual material, but that Bill C-10, which aims to regulate YouTube, Facebook and other platforms, will steer clear of content moderation, including for porn.

That task will fall to an oversight body whose mandate will draw inspiration from Australia's e-safety commissioner, among other watchdogs, in legislation that is still in the works, he said.

“It will not be done through C-10," Guilbeault told the ethics committee. “C-10 is not about content moderation."

Conservative and New Democrat MPs asked Guilbeault why a new regulator is needed to crack down on exploitive material when the Criminal Code already bars child pornography and the knowing distribution of illicit images.

“It seems the real and disturbing issue is a lack of application of the law and enforcement," said Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs.

Guilbeault said current tools to handle online harms "just aren’t adapted to the digital world" and need revision.

When the broad plan for a regulator was rolled out in April, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and Justice Minister David Lametti said child pornography and other forms of sexual exploitation present jurisdictional challenges.

Perpetrators and victims can be located anywhere in the world, while the reach of law enforcement agencies like the RCMP rarely extends beyond Canada's borders, they said.

Rampant child pornography and sexual exploitation on platforms such as Montreal-based Pornhub — the world's largest pornography site — have come under increasing scrutiny since a New York Times opinion piece highlighted the problem in December.

Meanwhile, the Liberals managed to speed up the controversial Bill C-10 on Monday, applying time allocation to a House of Commons committee with the support of the Bloc Québécois.

The move follows a blocked attempt to do likewise last week when Conservative lawmakers used procedural manoeuvres to prevent a House vote and hold up the legislation in a committee that's been studying Bill C-10 since February over stated fears it could wind up policing Canadians' social media posts.

Bill C-10 would bring global online streaming giants such as Netflix under the auspices of the Broadcasting Act, requiring them to promote Canadian content and to financially support Canadian cultural industries.

On another digital front, companies like MindGeek, which owns Pornhub and numerous other sites such as YouPorn and RedTube, have thrived for years even as reports poured in about images of children and non-consensual acts, and despite laws against child pornography and sexually abusive material.

Lianna McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, told the ethics committee in February that her organization has been "screaming from the rooftops that we are long overdue for regulation."

Others say laws are in place but lack teeth, hampered by weak enforcement, poor resources and jurisdictional barriers.

In Canada, users who upload illicit images are jointly liable with the companies that distribute them — including for child pornography or material posted without consent — or that become aware of them afterward and neglect to remove them. That differs from the U.S., where the Communications Decency Act does not hold web platforms responsible for user-generated material.

An RCMP briefing note from December handed over to the ethics committee cited Heritage Canada as leading government "proposals to regulate online platforms."

"Having the minister of culture and communications handle a file about horrific sexual assault videos to me is kind of like asking the minister of transportation to look after human trafficking. Why is it that the laws of the land are just not being applied?" NDP MP Charlie Angus asked Guilbeault on Monday.

Guilbeault replied that the legislation, whose timing remains uncertain, aims to shift the burden on taking down exploitive images "from the individual to the state."

That prompted Conservative MP Arnold Viersen to ask about preventive action, since testimony from survivors over the past few months revealed how tough it is to scrub videos from the web once posted.

“I think you’re asking if we have a magic wand to prevent crime. We don’t," Guilbeault responded.

He said he has spoken with officials from Australia, Finland, France and Germany as part of a working group on a "healthy digital ecosystem." Canada will announce a joint project alongside at least four other countries to combat online exploitation and hate speech in the coming weeks, he added.

The pending legislation is set to deal with five categories of "online harms": child sexual exploitation and non-consensual sharing of intimate images as well as hate speech, incitement to violence and incitement to terrorism.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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