It is often said that it takes a village to raise a child. This certainly requires the best efforts of parents to protect and guide their children. Grandparents and other family members all play an important part in a child’s life. In the modern world society also plays a crucial role in setting standards for the protection of minors. In fact, the best interest of the child is the framing principle of Canadian law.
This is perhaps most important in the digital space where children and youth can easily fall prey to online sexual predators. ”If we are going to protect children, if we are going to protect people from being exploited then we need principles, standards, and regulation says Penny Rankin, President of the Montreal Council of Women (MCW). (Note: Penny Rankin and Deborah Rankin are not related.)
Quebec Independent Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne is the sponsor of a bill to protect children and youth from exposure to online pornography. Bill S-203, Protecting Young Persons from Exposure to Pornography Act (short title) makes it an offence to make sexually explicit material available to young persons online and holds Internet service providers accountable for the content on their sites.
The bill which is now being studied by the Standing Senate Committee of Legal and Constitutional Affairs would require the implementation of age verification methodsto shield young people from online pornography. Sen. Miville-Dechêne recently tweeted that she would like to see Canada get serious about making porn sites comply with child protection laws: ”This is exactly what I’m trying to do with #S203. France is way ahead of Canada on that front: mandatory age verification by porn sites, and severe consequences for not complying.”
Last October the National Council of Women Canada (NCWC) passed a resolution calling on the Government of Canada to implement mandatory age-verification measures in online pornography. Rankin had started to put together an emergency resolution for the Montreal chapter to bring to the national organization as early as March. However, because of the pandemic the national AGM didn’t take place until later in the fall.
The push to mandate age-verification in online pornography is coming at a time when 40 women are suing porn giant MindGeek for profiting from sex videos in which they appeared on its Pornhub website. The women, including three Canadians, claim they were tricked or coerced into performing in the videos and their images were published without their consent. Moreover, some of the porn videos involve actual sexual assault, as well as the sexual abuse of underage girls. The lawsuit alleges that the videos in question, filmed by former MindGeek partner Girls Do Porn, amount to sex trafficking. MindGeek is a Canadian company headquartered in Luxembourg with offices in Bucharest, Dublin, London, Los Angeles, and Montreal.
By last spring Rankin and Miville-Dechêne had connected at protests outside the Montreal office of MindGeek – events sparked by allegations that the company had failed to comply with mandatory reporting requirements in regard to the sexual abuse of children. Miville-Dechêne’s bill ”completely dovetails with the actions of the NCWC,” Rankin says. The former Radio-Canada journalist has been in the forefront of the battle to recognize all forms of sexual exploitation. For five years, as the Chair of the Quebec government’s Conseil du statut de la femme Miville-Dechêne modernized the institution by making it relevant for young women. She raised its profile by speaking publicly on the major issues affecting women including sexual violence and prostitution.
”My main focus, personally, was around human trafficking,” Rankin says. Then she began to look more closely at the hand-in-glove relationship between sexual exploitation and sex-trafficking. ”That brings you to look at issues like pornography and prostitution that are driven by demand.” Legally, the distinction between sex-trafficking and sexual exploitation is moot where minors are concerned. ”Sexual abuse directed towards children, under the Palermo protocols (anti-trafficking protocols adopted by the UN) and, in terms of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, is always considered human trafficking because they can’t give consent,” she says.
Another impetus for the bill is to prevent the damaging effects of pornography on impressionable young minds even when this does not involve human trafficking. The bill’s language is unambiguous: “the consumption of sexually explicit material by young persons is associated with a range of serious harms, including the development of pornography addiction, the reinforcement of gender stereotypes and the development of attitudes favourable to harassment and violence — including sexual harassment and sexual violence — particularly against women.”
The bill’s timing could not be more urgent. The pandemic has increased the opportunities for the criminal exploitation of children and youth as more kids spend more time online. ”It (sexual abuse) has gravitated towards cyber abuse during Covid,” Rankin says. The MCW’s statement on age-verification and the protection of children from exposure to online pornography highlights the context giving rise to increased abuse: ”The current pandemic has dramatically increased the amount of time children and youth are online as school boards and families alike turn to the web and media platforms as educational resources and as children and youth themselves seek to access entertainment and to connect with their peers.”
Rankin would like to see all Internet service providers and social media platforms use government approved third-party age-verification mechanisms instead of allowing the porn industry to police itself. ”We don’t want them self-regulating,” she says. She would also like to see more funding, training, and presence of the police force to combat sex-trafficking and sexual abuse. ”Sustainable funding for specialized forensic tools and policing resources to curb, dismantle, and expose illegal practices are needed to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for human trafficking of children,” she says.
Miville-Dechêne is encouraged by the fact that her bill has made it this far in the legislative process and been referred to a Senate committee for further study. It is at this stage that witnesses will be able to provide their point of view and insight by appearing before the committee or by submitting a brief. She sees this as one more step towards a better protection of young people in the digital space while acknowledging that the government will need to take additional steps to stamp out the sexual abuse of children and youth.
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