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Canada to create regulator to hold online platforms accountable for harmful content, sources say

The Online Harms Act, which is expected to be introduced in the House of Commons this week, will include a new regulator, separate from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, with a mandate to reduce online harms.

New regulator will be separate from the CRTC

A person holds a phone with a variety of social media apps displayed.

The Online Harms Act, expected to be introduced by the federal government on Monday, will include the creation of a new regulator that would hold online platforms accountable for harmful content they host, CBC News has confirmed.

The new regulatory body is expected to oversee a digital safety office with the mandate of reducing online harm and will be separate from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), sources say.

Two sources, including one with the federal government, with knowledge of Monday's legislation confirmed the creation of the office, saying it will require Canadian websites to uphold a "duty to reduce harm" and comply with federal law. CBC News is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter before the bill is tabled in Parliament.

It's not clear whether the regulator will have power only over online platforms hosted in Canada or over all websites accessible by Canadians.

The Canadian Press first reported that a new regulator would be part of forthcoming online-harms legislation. The government is also planning to establish a new ombudsperson whose job would be to field concerns from members of the public who encounter problematic material or scenarios online, CP previously reported.

Sources say some components of the new bill will be modelled on the European Union's Digital Services Act. According to the European Commission, its act "regulates online intermediaries and platforms such as marketplaces, social networks, content-sharing platforms, app stores, and online travel and accommodation platforms."

WATCH | The debate over online harms:

At Issue | Personal attacks over online harms bill

3 days ago

Duration 23:22

At Issue this week: The federal Liberals are set to announce a bill to make the internet safer for kids, something the Opposition says limits free speech. Quebec asks for $1 billion to handle the growing costs of asylum seekers. Plus, the head of the firm at the centre of the ArriveCan affair summoned to Parliament.

In an interview on Sunday, Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, told CBC News there's a need for some kind of governance structure to tackle harmful online content, but "the devil will be in the details" of what regulations will entail.

"The government already saddled the CRTC with many issues that fall beyond its expertise," he said. "It's hard to judge the new governance structure until we see it, it's actually a bit of a wild card."

The government's proposed legislation will focus on protecting children and youth from the dangers of the internet, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"We need to do a better job as a society of protecting our kids online the way we protect them in schoolyards, in our communities, in our homes across the country," Trudeau told reporters in Edmonton on Wednesday.

Privacy concerns around age verification

Monday's legislation by the government is expected to present an alternative to Bill S-210, proposed by Independent Sen. Julie Miville-Dechêne. That bill requires Canadians to verify their age to access porn online, with the establishment of a digital ID verification system as a potential method.

A House of Commons committee is set to study S-210, as the owners of Canadian adult website Pornhub said they won't rule out blocking Canadians from the site if measures to verify the age of users are passed.

"We will never, ever take the private identifying information of our users," Solomon Friedman, a partner and vice-president of compliance at Ethical Capital Partners, which owns Pornhub's parent company, said in a previous interview.

Trudeau said his Liberal government is opposed to age-verification systems for porn websites, an option endorsed by Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre last week. Poilievre's office later clarified that the Conservatives oppose any kind of digital ID as a method of doing so.

When age-verification laws passed in Utah last summer, Pornhub blocked access to its site, and demand for Virtual Private Networks surged by 847 per cent, according to Top 10 VPN, which analyzes spikes in VPN demand. Montana, one of the states where age-verification laws passed last year, saw a 482 per cent increase in demand for VPN, which is used to hide people's location online.

The possibility of age-verification systems rang alarm bells among privacy experts, who worry about the risks of Canadians sharing their personal information with external sources.

WATCH | Expert discusses potential age verification for pornography:

Michael Geist on the controversial senate bill requiring Canadians to verify age to access porn online

4 days ago

Duration 5:05

It's owners say they're considering blocking access to Canadians if the bill is passed. The bill outlines a range of concerns about minors having access to sexually explicit material. However, it doesn't specify how sites should verify a user's age.

The regulations echo the online harms bill that Trudeau's government proposed ahead of the 2021 election. It would have created a digital safety commissioner as a watchdog for social media companies, required to weed out child pornography and other harmful content.

Public consultations for these rules were met with strong criticism from privacy experts and civil liberties groups, who said a proposed measure giving companies 24 hours to remove flagged harmful content would encourage platforms to be overly cautious and result in suppression of free speech. The bill ultimately died on the order paper when the Liberals called an election.

Trudeau then said he would table an online harms bill within 100 days after the election, a years-old promise that faced mounting pressure with the rise of online hate speech and multiple reports of teenagers who died by suicide after being victims of online sextortion.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Naama Weingarten

Associate producer

Naama Weingarten is an associate producer with CBC News based in Toronto. You can reach her at naama.weingarten@cbc.ca or follow her on X @NaamaWeingarten.

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