Slightly over a week ago, Canada introduced legislation to replace the anti-prostitution laws that had been struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Conservative government has been trying to race Bill C-36 through both the House and the Senate simultaneously, at breakneck speed. But the text of the bill has raised questions about its constitutionality. Sex workers, mainstream media and even many Nordic model proponents and abolitionists agree that it places sex workers in even greater danger than the previous laws did.
But is there also a poison pill within the legislation that could be used to stifle LGBT and sex-positive speech?
Firstly, here is what the dubiously-named “Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act” does:
- It re-criminalizes communicating for the purpose of commercial sex. While there is said to be an exemption for the sex worker themselves, that exemption only applies if the communication is not in a public place and/or not “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present” (a minor doesn’t actually have to be present), and not in the presence of another sex worker under the age of 18 (one controversy has arisen because underage sex workers can be charged if they work together for safety). The law had been struck down previously because it put sex workers in unsafe situations by limiting their ability to screen clients, and negotiate what they were willing and unwilling to do.
- It re-criminalizes the “common bawdy-house,” defined as a place “for the practice of acts of indecency, a place that is kept or occupied or resorted to by one or more persons.” This criminalizes massage parlours and strip clubs, if commercial sex occurs on their premises, and also prevents sex workers from having their own (or collective) space away from home to meet with clients. The bawdy-house law had been previously struck down because it prevented sex workers from working collectively indoors.
- It re-criminalizes “living off the avails…” (as “receiving a material benefit that derives” from the sale of sex). It does provide an exemption (subject to interpretation) for some roommates, spouses and children who live with sex workers, provided that nothing can be construed as an exploitative situation and no drugs are provided to the sex worker. This also criminalizes escort agencies, and it is unclear how liable referrers, drivers, bodyguards, associates and other business partners could be. This had also been previously struck down because it prevented sex workers from working together or making business arrangements that improve their safety and circumstances.
- It now officially criminalizes the purchase of sex. This is new (previously, it had been legal but associated activities were illegal), and it’s because of this that people are claiming the law is based on the Nordic model of prostitution laws, which aim to end demand while supposedly not targeting sex workers themselves — but Canada’s law goes very clearly beyond that point in several ways. While many are claiming that this law will inevitably be struck down as unconstitutional, the Harper government’s gambit strategy is to criminalize sex work, so that it is no longer legally relevant whether the laws make it unsafe.
- Something else that is entirely new is that the law criminalizes advertising “sexual services.” Newspapers and websites are legally liable if commercial sex advertisements are found within their publications, and consequences can include fines or imprisonment — again with an exemption for the sex workers themselves, provided it is not in a public place and/or “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present….” Weirdly, it appears that the Internet may be defined as a place where persons under the age of 18 can be reasonably expected to be present, for the purposes of this bill.
“Sexual services” is not defined, and I have asked elsewhere if this term could eventually be stretched in such a way that it ultimately bans porn. The bill contains extensive search and seizure powers that at the very least provides all the legal teeth that such a ban would need. Others have also asked if the vague nature of this term could be used to target sexual health services, sex-positive counseling, sex toys and more.
If the phrase “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present” is reminiscent of Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” law, that may be by design — Canada’s criminalization of sex work owes more to Russia’s anti-prostitution laws than to the Nordic model.
(If anyone is interested in background of these specifics, I have posts at Rabble.ca about what the bill explicitly does, and how the bill makes a seriously flawed and damaging conflation between sex work and human trafficking.)
The Poison Pill
The new criminalization of “sexual service” advertising, however, is especially concerning. Given the way that print and online publications are to be held liable for commercial sex advertising, there are serious implications for Canadians’ freedom of speech. Beyond the obvious loss of advertising revenues that an LGBT publication might endure, there could also be wider-spread censorship if that legal liability also extends to Internet Service Providers (ISPs), for any such advertisements that could be found on their networks.
The question is not as absurd as it sounds. It was only last July that Conservative MP Joy Smith loudly cheered Britain’s new law which required ISPs to institute a content filtering system requiring Britons to opt in if they want to be able to access anything deemed to be obscene or pornographic. At the time, she had promised to flag this for the party to make a top priority, she said she was absolutely certain that the Prime Minister would be interested in taking action, and then nothing else has ever been said publicly about it. Meanwhile, Joy Smith has been the Harper Conservatives’ most vocal proponent of Bill C-36, and given many comments by her Conservative Party colleagues, it would seem that she also had a hand in drafting the bill and / or lobbying for it among Members of Parliament. And the only groups that have been very happy with Bill C-36 have been a number of religious groups, who seem to be the only consultants that were listened to.
Filters have caused minor controversies in Canada before, such as when Tim Hortons had to apologize for blocking DailyXtra from WiFi users. However, they’ve not improved very much, over time, and have never been applied in a global fashion.
If ISPs are legally liable for (or could be threatened with legal liability for) advertisements of sexual services found on their networks under the terms of C-36, then out of necessity and self-preservation, ISPs would need to institute a content filtering system, nationwide. Unlike Britain’s, there may not be an opt-in alternative. This would be doubly reinforced if pornography were deemed a “sexual service” (i.e. by acting as an intermediary) at some point.
Where this becomes especially a concern for free speech is that content filters are incredibly arbitrary, and any filter system designed to effectively intercept commercial sex advertising would inevitably be overly broad.
The result of the filters implemented in Britain has been a deliberately quiet reduction in access to a great many things:
“The filters block a wide variety of content, from hardcore porn to extremist political sites… those “porn blockers” have already proven to be ineffective, blocking plenty of harmless sites and failing to tell the difference between sex education forums and porn. In one case, a domestic abuse helpline was blocked as inappropriate material, while many actual porn sites are still accessible through the filters.”
Back in January, The Guardian‘s Laurie Penny asserted that blocking more than porn was both the intent and the inevitable consequence of the government’s content filtering initiative. Casualties of the filter system had included “helplines like Childline and the NSPCC, domestic violence and suicide prevention services.” The New Statesman reported in December that one ISP advertised that its filters would block gay and lesbian content:
“BT have since reworded this description to remove the ‘gay and lesbian’ reference, but given that their filtering is provided by an unnamed “third party supplier” it seems highly unlikely that the filter itself has changed overnight – merely the description.”
What is and isn’t allowed still can’t be determined except through trial and error. The Cameron government had to draw up a whitelist to force-allow sites that have been noticed to have inadvertently run afoul of the censor. But the scope of the filters has grown since its initial introduction to also include discussions deemed politically radical — an addition stated to be because of the possibility of the propagation of terrorism.
While a C-36 inspired filter system would operate differently because of what it’s intended to block — advertisements of sexual services, rather than pornography — that doesn’t mean that the filters would be any less clumsy. While search terms like “escort” would be natural flags for a filter system, ISPs that are worried about legal repercussions would necessarily include a wider array of tags, to try to prevent anyone from getting around the filters. Given the subjective nature of the term “sexual services,” something that’s open to wide interpretation, this could result in the “just in case” mentality, where businesses and individuals apply the rule in an overly broad way, to avoid any possible complaints or legal liabilities. And then there’s the problem of filtering images, which don’t of themselves have keywords other than the descriptions assigned to them.
Given the avid support that MP Joy Smith has shown to both C-36 and content filtering — as well as the Bill’s obvious pandering to far right groups that have called for a Canadian equivalent to a Russian-style “homosexual propaganda” law — it’s a reasonable question to ask.
Canadians concerned about this possibility can contact their MP (who can be determined through a search on the parl.gc.ca main page), and civilly but clearly ask for assurance that the ban on sexual service advertising in C-36 could not be used in this manner. They’re also encouraged to find out more about what the bill does, and voice their opposition or their concerns about how this affects sex workers. They should CC their message to Minister of Justice Peter MacKay, and if their Member of Parliament is a Conservative, they might also want to copy an interested member of the opposition, such as Françoise Boivin (NDP), Sean Casey (Lib.) or Elizabeth May (Greens). This must be done quickly, however.
Bill C-36 will be voted on at Second Reading on Monday June 16th, after Question Period at 3:00pm. From there, it could proceed to Third (and final) Reading, or to a committee stage for amendments (although it appears the Conservatives prefer to pass it as soon as possible).
(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)