Opinion: When it comes to kids' online safety, leave politics aside

Challenges persist with issues like age verification; resolving them should be entrusted to technical experts.

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On Feb. 26, the federal government tabled the highly anticipated online harms legislation, Bill C-63. The legislation seeks to hold online platforms accountable for content posted on their platforms, particularly concerning issues like hate speech, terrorism, child exploitation, non-consensual intimacy and misinformation. It proposes the creation of a Digital Safety Commission, a Digital Safety Ombudsperson, and a Digital Safety Office to enforce the act while protecting the public interest.

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The bill has received mixed reactions and sparked heated political debates. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre launched a personal attack on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and questioned his sincerity in combating hate speech. In response, Trudeau questioned the Opposition leader’s commitment in protecting kids, saying: “He’s proposing that adults should instead give their ID and personal information to sketchy websites, or create a digital ID for adults to be able to browse the web the way they want to.”

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Trudeau was referring to Bill S-210, which proposes online age verification to restrict young people’s access to sexually explicit content. Sponsored by an independent senator, the bill passed in the Senate last spring and in December moved through second reading in the House of Commons with the support of Conservative, Bloc Québécois and NDP MPs, while a majority of Liberals voted against it.

In the case of any new legislation, especially concerning sensitive issues like online harms, intense political debates are to be expected. However, what seems to be lacking in this case are evidence-based statements from leading politicians.

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Laws similar to Bill S-210 have been passed in the European Union, France, the United Kingdom and several U.S. states. All of them strictly mandate that users’ personal information is collected solely for age-verification purposes by a third party, and the data is destroyed immediately after verification. The proposed online harms bill in Canada also contains a broad recommendation for age-appropriate design of products and services to protect children.

Interestingly, Canadians are already sharing their ID documents with some online platforms, such as Facebook, to open verified accounts. It will always be challenging for the Canadian government to enforce regulations on global tech giants like Facebook. However, regarding the implementation of Bill S-210, the entity primarily in question is Montreal-based Aylo (Pornhub), the world’s largest adult content website, which falls more directly under Canadian jurisdiction. A recent investigation by Canada’s privacy commissioner found that Pornhub and other Aylo sites broke the law by enabling the sharing of intimate images without direct knowledge or consent of the complainant.

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As a PhD candidate, my doctoral research is focused on anonymous age-verification systems designed to protect users’ privacy. Apart from ID documents, other options for age verification such as facial estimation and cross-validation through credit cards have also been implemented commercially. The euCONSENT project of the European Commission conducted a pilot study among 2,000 participants across five European countries in 2022, where 68 per cent of participants favoured facial estimation as the preferred method of online age verification.

The Digital Governance Council of Canada (DGC) has already begun developing technical standards for age-verification technologies, engaging local and external experts from various domains. While technical challenges persist for online age verification, resolving them should be entrusted to technical experts, especially when governments at all levels in Canada aim to foster homegrown tech innovation.

It is natural to have differing opinions and perspectives on online safety, especially regarding age verification. However, technological competencies should be demonstrated factually by concerned experts rather than being subject to typical political debate. Above all, with various legislations and judicial directions emerging, prioritizing children’s online safety in Canada should be our primary focus at this time.

Azfar Adib is a public scholar and a doctoral candidate in electrical and computer engineering at Concordia University.

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