My submission to the Digital Citizen Initiative’s Harmful Content Online discussion

Things are not right in the world of online censorship. This discussion has been evolving since the ETHI Committee’s Protection of Privacy and Reputation on Platforms Such as PornHub consultation series. If you don’t know much about it, you should absolutely read some more. I’ll make a post about that next on this blog.

The recommendations from the final report have now been lumped in with issues of terrorism and hate speech to form this discussion guide and technical paper. The final report from the ETHI consultation paid a lot of lipservice to listening to and including sex workers, but now that the discussion guide is out, we can see that this absolutely did not happen.

Let’s face it, they’ve designed this issue to be one that no politician wants to speak out against. The idea is that it’s supposed to end terrorism, hate speech, and child porn. Like holy fuck, I want those things to end too, but this set of recommendations will only make things worse for everyone. I need you to know that when they say that these measures will end terrorism, hate speech, and child porn, what they mean is that they will not improve at all (may even get worse) and all Canadians will have to give up all privacy on the internet while allowing for rampant censorship of consensual sexual content (which is fully legal) and politically-motivated content. PHEW. Raw deal y’all.

I’ve submitted the following to the Digital Citizen Initiative at the Government of Canada. Please, if you have time, add your own commentary to the discussion, and tell our government why online surveillance will not fly. Protect freedom of expression, protect sex workers, protect our rights to protest. Please. You can write it as a letter, you can write it as an essay, you can make a bullet-point list. Anything helps.

Here is the letter as submitted:

I’m writing this letter with a feeling of being let down immensely by my own government. I’m writing in a personal tone here, because I feel it’s the best way to get my points across.

I submitted a brief to the ETHI committee, one of the committees whose conclusions led to this discussion paper being released. It detailed my experience as a victim of revenge porn, and the ways that I overcame the shame and stigma that having a crime committed against you can create. Pause and think about that for a second – that being the victim of a crime can cause so much shame and stigma that a person could be refused employment or access to education or, for example, being listened to by your own government.

My revenge porn experience was absolutely traumatic, and was one of at least six experiences reported to the ETHI committee during their consultations with the public. The committee released what seemed like a wonderful final report, thanking all survivors and recognizing the emotional toll that it takes to relive their experiences. The report moved on to thank all five survivors of revenge porn or similar abuse who shared witness testimony and briefs, and described their stories. Can you imagine, at all, how deeply my heart sank when I realized that I was not recognized as a survivor? Despite having sat down to describe my experiences, reliving them, and now to have to do it again? Can you imagine how hard that is?

Can you imaging being a victim of revenge porn, realizing society doesn’t want you if you’re sexual, and then dedicating the next 17 years of your life to try to advance the human rights of people who exist in a publicly sexual way, with the goal of making it so that revenge porn holds less power over victims – only to be told that your victimhood doesn’t count because you thrived? Ouch, man. Ouch. For real, that sent me into a depressive spiral the likes of which have rarely been seen. Thanks for all the lip service to listening to sex workers and victims, it did nothing to comfort me from the pain the committee caused.

I was denied speaking in person to the ETHI committee. I was denied the victimhood that I absolutely have lived through. My narrative is not acceptable, and I would love it if you could ask yourselves why. Sex worker rights advocates and groups were eventually granted permission to appear, but ended up filibustered after their initial statements. It was shameful. That was not inclusion of our voices.

These proposed changes to Canadian law and procedure are incredibly dangerous. The canary is dying here, and I need you to see it.

As law and policymakers, you have a duty to create law and policy that will not be able to be abused by this government, nor the next, nor would that law or policy put Canadian citizens’ privacy at risk in matters related to freedom of expression.

Lumping in the idea of protecting young people from sexual abuse on the internet with hate speech and terrorism is a big thing to speak out against. I, for one, abhor every single one of those things. I want to be clear that I’m not speaking out against ending those horrible actions. I’m speaking out against the methodology, narrative, and the net result of knee-jerk bad legislation. I’m here to say “slow down, include sex worker voices as you said you would, and listen to sound peer-reviewed research.”

1. The organizations leading the conversation at the ETHI committee were largely anti-choice, anti-trans, one-man-one-woman evangelical “christian” organizations whose stated goals are to “end all exploitation on the internet”, with exploitation being defined as any and all sexual content.
Look at the names and mandates of these groups and tell us how you really feel giving them the floor and allowing them to dictate who is and isn’t a victim. REAL Women of Canada, Defend Dignity, Christian Legal Fellowship, Stop au Porno, Stop ExploitationHub, and collections of survivors whose stories are being held up *by these organizations*. Many of these organizations’ websites feature tabs where you can go to learn how to pray for the end of all sex work. The people they deem as survivors get to speak, and you are letting them censor out who officially gets called a survivor. That’s horrifying. That’s not separation of church and state. That’s the exact opposite.

These organizations are more than welcome to not look at pornographic websites if they hate it so much, but they are not allowed to dictate that others must follow their moral views. That is not what Canada stands for. We, as Canadians recognize their desire not to consume or be involved in sexually explicit material, but we, as Canadians, must also recognize the choice of the vast majority of people to choose to participate in and consume those same materials.

I absolutely recognize that a very fancy high priced American lawyer stood up at the start of the ETHI committee’s hearings and instructed everyone that none of this argument is religiously-motivated and that anyone who speaks out against this is a PornHub collaborator, because anyone who actually speaks out against PornHub gets “disappeared”. Hi hello, I have been yelling disapproval against PornHub for years and years, and I’m still here. I’m very sorry that it seems like the ETHI committee bought into this man’s leading comments. In court, this would be considered asking the jury to prejudge the evidence, and the statement would be stricken.

2. The proposed amendments constitute an enormous security and privacy violation for all Canadian citizens using social media-based websites.
As someone that operates an adult website with interactive capabilities on the internet, the idea that all social media-type websites operating within Canada must store for 12 months the IP data of all visitors is horrifying. Couple that with the need to provide identification to ISPs to be tied to that data, and you have created one heck of a security risk. Individual, private companies should not be storing sensitive data tied to identities for that long. You are opening people up to identity theft, stalking, and countless other crimes.

CSIS and child exploitation groups can already obtain warrants for data on very short notices. If that’s the thing you want streamlined, streamline that! Don’t come after the privacy of every Canadian citizen. If you want the data, get a warrant. Those are the rules.

3. The proposed amendments would only end up harming small, independent, ethical producers of adult material, independent sex workers, and everyday Canadians.
PornHub is a huge corporation, and it can pick up and move to another country tomorrow. I can’t. My home is here, my home is in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. My friends and family live here, as do the friends and family of others just trying to make a living in the adult industry in peace. Knowing that these new recommendations could see someone like me falsely accused of distributing images of young people (as the New York Times article that inspired this whole fiasco did to any content describing “barely legal” films) and then fined ten million dollars if I don’t respond within 24 hours, I am absolutely terrified to operate the completely legal business that I operate. There are days I don’t check my email because I’m in class or I’m having a family day or something of the like. My income from my website is in the thousands of dollars per year, and I would be financially ruined by a minimum ten million dollar fine.

You will be killing any existing ethically-run businesses and encouraging underground or large-scale tube sites to move to another country and continue operating. Marginalized voices working in the medium toward a more wholistic representation of their sexuality or gender will be discouraged from ever starting up. You’ll be encouraging the status quo or taking us backwards.

The groups pushing these exploitation narratives don’t differentiate between me, as a queer woman running an ethical and legal business, and a child pornographer. They think we’re one and the same, because it’s all exploitation to them. This is probably why my revenge porn experience did not make me a victim – because I’ve got the title of “exploiter”. That narrative is so incredibly problematic, and has been broken down by countless sex worker rights and advocacy groups, as well as in Canada v Bedford (2013). We need you to listen. The consequences are dire. This kind of bad legislation not only does not end revenge porn (as long as sexuality is a weapon, people will use it as one), but it will also kill sex workers and online content creators working for themselves. Literally, the amount of (generally women, and especially BIPOC and trans women) who will die by violence will rise again. If you’d like to see evidence of how ending criminalization of sex workers leads to decreased mortality in women, I suggest you look into the Downtown East Side of Vancouver’s strategies that have resulted in a drastic decline in murders. This is a real decline that exists across the board. You can also look at the consequences of SESTA/FOSTA in the US taking down sites like Craigslist’s adult services section and Femicide decreased by up to 17% in cities following the introduction of Craigslist adult services. That bad legislation (which is currently being challenged in the US by the Woodhull Freedom Foundation) has had a direct effect on the wellbeing of folks in the sex work industry, and femicide numbers are again creeping up. Those aren’t just numbers, they’re humans, parents, siblings, spouses. They’re your voters. However you have to think of them to make you care.

Prohibition kills. Additional carceral language kills. We already know who is committing these revenge porn cases, and I can almost guarantee you that the number of those abusers who have been convicted of a crime is astonishingly low. Why is that not the problem we’re addressing?

4. You must make laws that will not harm people in Canada, no matter which government is in power.
This is an extra-credit bit that you should really consider, seeing as it’s literally your job. Our laws must be made knowing that there will be abuses of power, and the laws must be made in a way such that those abuses of power will be as limited as possible.

The Government of Canada, under these new suggested changes, would be able to obtain IP tracked information for anything posted by anyone on the internet in Canada. From there, Page ofdirect photo identification can be retrieved from the ISP. Voila, you’ve got the home address of anyone who posts anything on the internet. Now, that sounds great when you’re saying it’s to end child porn and terrorism. Whoop, sign me up, you might say. But you need to think of how these laws would be enforced in the hands of someone operating in unethical or self-interested ways. Dissenting voices against a government could be deemed terrorists and traced to their home address. This is incredibly dangerous.

Not only is selling sex legal in Canada, so is pornography consumption and production. It would be against Charter rights to create law that would have the direct effect of banning legal work.

In sum, sex workers are ready, willing, and waiting to be included in real and meaningful ways in this discussion. We are not all PornHub agents, we are not on the side of violence and exploitation. We are here to help you write the best possible laws that will leave the fewest people behind, including us.

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