Canada looking at creating new regulator to crack down on illegal online porn

The federal government wants to create a new regulator to crack down on illegal online porn, including videos of childhood sexual abuse, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announced Monday.

Blair was testifying in the parliamentary ethics committee in its hearing over Pornhub, the Montreal-based porn giant that has faced a reckoning in the last months.

"We recognize that also there's much more work to do," said Blair in his appearance, which was announced at the last minute late last week.

"And that's why we will introduce legislation to create a new regulator that will ensure that online platforms remove harmful content, including depictions of childhood sexual exploitation and... images that are shared without consent."

There are few details available yet on what the new bill might include, though Justice Minister David Lametti, who also testified, said it's meant to fill "legislative gaps."

He suggested at one point that the new regulatory body might beef up the requirement that Canadian internet service providers report to Canadian authorities any child sexual material they discover and preserve the evidence.

They already have this obligation, under the Mandatory Reporting Act, but Lametti suggested the proposed regulator would make sure they're actually following through.

"Without revealing the contents of what of what might be in a draft bill, because I can't do that... the kinds of things that have been suggested [are] how to how to make sure that service providers are more responsible in terms of mandatory reporting," he said.

But one expert said he's skeptical that the solution is more legislation, saying Canadian police already have most of the laws they need but lack training and coordination to help them do their jobs.

"I have dealt with situations where local police departments simply do not have the skill, the knowledge, the training, the capacity to help," said David Fraser, a Halifax-based lawyer who specializes in privacy law.

"They do not have the connections to deal wth the international dimension of these sorts of things."

Lametti also mentioned parts of the bill that he said could help police, including protecting information "in a more robust manner" in order to help law enforcement "build and maintain evidentiary cases," though he provided few details.

A MULTI-PARTY EFFORT

Canadian legislators have been unusually united across parties for several years in an effort to tackle illegal porn, especially videos depicting child abuse.

They have focusedon Pornhub, which was launched and grown in Montreal and whose main office is still there, though the headquarters of its parent company, Mindgeek, are now in Luxembourg.

The problems with Pornhub became much higher profile since an investigation by the New York Times last fall that led to a multi-week review by the ethics committee.

Since January, the committee has heard from people whose own taped abuse as children was posted on the site, among other testimony. Last month, more than 70 parliamentarians from all parties called on the RCMP for a criminal investigation into Mindgeek.

"We've been at this for a number of weeks and heard some quite shocking testimony -- testimony that I could probably say, frankly, that for the majority of us, turned our stomachs," said Liberal MP Francesco Sorbara on Monday.

Mindgeek has denied all accusations of wrongdoing, saying it is a global leader in preventing distribution of exploitative videos and images.

"MindGeek has zero tolerance for non-consensual content, child sexual abuse material (CSAM), and any other content that lacks the consent of all parties depicted," the company said in an email this month.

CYBERCRIME WITHOUT OBVIOUS BORDERS

Lametti said many laws are already on the books to protect children from filmed sexual abuse, including anti-voyeurism laws, the Mandatory Reporting Act and many others.

But he and Blair both said that companies like Mindgeek, whose operations can be hard to pin down to a particular country, can be tough to hold to account.

For example, Blair said, images of victims of child sexual abuse can be shared on platforms that may be headquartered in one country, but legally registered in another, with servers in different countries, he said.

The victims, the children themselves, can be in yet another country.

Lametti mentioned the same problem, at one point struggling to answer when asked if Mindgeek is in fact a Canadian company.

"They have 1,000 employees in Montreal, and their office is at 777 Boulevard Decarie," said NDP MP Charlie Angus.

"So, Mr. Lametti, in your opinion, would this qualify Mindgeek as a Canadian company, subject to Canadian law?"

Lametti answered that there are conflicting opinions.

"I'm not going to comment on the actual details," he said. "There have been differing opinions, as Minister Blair and I have pointed out -- it can depend on where servers are located."

However, Fraser said it's not necessarily quite so complicated. The location of servers is "largely irrelevant," he said.

"The law of jurisdiction in Canada is largely based on there being a 'real and substantial connection' to Canada," said the lawyer.

"If a victim is in Canada, there's enough jurisdiction for Canadian police to investigate. And if the suspect is in Canada, even more so," he said, meaning the company involved or those in charge of it.

The comments at Monday's hearing suggested that government is "looking to create a new bureaucracy to enforce existing criminal law," he said.

"This is either redundant, as we already have agencies charged with enforcing criminal law, or it points to a significant shortcoming with existing law enforcement."

POLICE SHORTCOMINGS

Fraser said that while the RCMP has a specialized unit in online child exploitation, local police departments don't have the same expertise, which means existing laws are applied unevenly.

In one recent case from Ontario, a young woman was extorted by an ex-boyfriend and was told he was going to send explicit videos and photos to her friends and family if she didn't comply with some other request, Fraser said.

She tried to report it to her local police department "and was told their computer guy was on vacation for a week and would get back to her," he said.

In the meantime, "these images were released, causing her significant harm," he said. "These sorts of things shouldn't happen."

Blair, whose ministry is responsible for all Canadian policing, acknowedged in his testimony that he, too, had stressed last year that Canada already has comprehensive laws in place against illegal videos.

However, he said that he had a series of talks with the RCMP in December and asked what could improve policing around child exploitation. Some extra funding was allocated as a result, he said.

"We... know that the RCMP and municipal and provincial police services have a very significant job, and sometimes challenging job, in gathering the evidence they need, and that's why we went to them and asked what resources they need," said Blair, who also once ran a police child exploitation unit when he was Toronto police chief.

He said there "are a number of other initiatives on the way," he said.

--With files from The Canadian Press

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