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Ginny Roth: Your freedom to watch porn doesn’t trump our duty to protect children

Commentary

Pierre Poilievre declared early last week that his party supported limiting child access to online porn. The news was breathlessly reported, the X analysis began, and it only took about 48 hours for the debate to shift from differences in principles and worldviews into a “well, actually” scuffle over technocratic implementation challenges.

Why was that?

As libertarians (of all partisan stripes) took to social media to mock Poilievre on principled grounds, I suspect that in making their arguments, they found their own messaging rather unpalatable, or at least they realized most Canadians would. You can just imagine how the thought process went. “HA!”, they thought to themselves. “Mr. Freedom himself isn’t so interested in all those freedoms, is he??” (So far so good). “I guess his consistent worldview isn’t so consistent after all!” (How embarrassing for him!) “I guess he doesn’t feel strongly enough about completely unfettered access to highly exploitative and disturbing online content for kids, does he??” (OK, maybe this part needs some spin.)

Because of course children shouldn’t have easy access to porn on the handheld devices they carry with them all day, every day. The very notion is so absurd that the only way to defend it is to change the nature of the argument. Given the necessary implication of a freedom-of-expression-based argument (that the adult right to expression outweighs a duty to protect children), I would probably pivot away from that path of argumentation quickly too. And to be fair, the technical policy arguments against age-gating are far stronger. Poilievre sought to address one of those arguments quickly, his office clarifying that his party would not support a digital ID. Still, implementation would be difficult. We’re not used to regulating the internet and writing policy to address external harms caused by new technology has never been easy. Wise policymakers will no doubt recommend an approach that allows for adjustments as legislation and regulation are tested by real-world applications. 

Age verification will be tricky to implement, and any approach will come with risks. But let’s be clear about what those risks are. They’re not about a threat to freedom of expression. The libertarians put that matter to bed when they realized that arguing a porn star’s (or, perhaps more truthfully, a porn profiteer’s) right to self-expression supersedes our duty to children was a non-starter. For the implementation-is-hard argument, the risks are to the porn companies, and the troublesome red tape they’ll encounter (pour one out for Pornhub, I guess), and, more seriously, to the privacy of adults viewing porn online. Any time adults are required to provide proof of identity in a digital environment, there’s a risk of a data breach. It’s a real problem. But it’s a problem that affects many of our online interactions. Yes, it will be difficult to confirm age.

And of course, gathering personal data carries the risk of a data breach. But as our country increasingly operates online, this is already true. Whether we book plane tickets and provide our passport numbers, log on for some i-gaming and prove our age, or go online shopping and share our credit card numbers, we share data online all the time, taking the risk that our identity or payments might be compromised, and expecting the private sector and government to develop more sophisticated solutions to protect against that as time goes on.

“What about the parents?” you might say. “Why should I sacrifice my right to privacy and risk a data breach just because parents can’t keep their kids off porn sites?” I would direct your attention to the evolving policy matter of smartphones in schools. Some technologically powerful cultural trends are simply too potent for individual parents to push back against on their own. I won’t rehash the harms that early, frequent access to porn has on developing minds at great length, but they are plentiful, and it’s probably fair to say we haven’t yet measured the extent of it given that Gen Z is the first generation to carry social media on their phones, in their pockets, from childhood. Given the knowledge we do have, I think it’s unacceptable for policymakers to simply turn away, washing their hands of the issue and hoping kids come out relatively unscathed.

In high-functioning societies, we trade off rights, privileges, and duties all the time in public policy-making. “Ordered liberty” often requires that the strong in society give up some freedoms in order for us to collectively protect the weak. So, the question becomes, do you think an adult’s absolute right to guaranteed privacy online in every circumstance outweighs our duty to protect children from harmful content? I say no. Assuming we make every effort to protect adult privacy and are thoughtful about the policy design required to do so, we ought to prioritize our duty to protect children from harm. I suspect most Canadians agree with me.

The Weekly Wrap: Poilievre proves he’s more than a live-and-let-live libertarian

Commentary

This week‘s edition of The Hub’s Weekly Wrap reflects on three of the past week’s biggest stories, including Pierre Poilievre’s support for age verification to access pornography, the Conservatives’ youth movement, and the American Right’s continued descent into a cult of personality.

Debates over access to porn dominate Ottawa

Pornography was at the centre of Canadian politics this week. Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre surprised some political observers by signaling support for legislation that would require age verification for Canadians to access online porn. 

Although he didn’t provide much detail about how such a law might ultimately be implemented, Poilievre’s endorsement in principle represents a notable divergence from the libertarian politics with which he’s become associated. It reflects a more nuanced worldview than we’ve typically seen from him, and is an implicit recognition of Stephen Harper’s axiom that “Conservatives have to be more than modern liberals in a hurry.” 

What Harper was conveying in his influential 2003 Civitas address, and what Poilievre’s surprise announcement on online pornography signals, is that in today’s political context it isn’t sufficient for conservatives to merely confront progressivism’s economic agenda. They must also be prepared to challenge the excesses of its sociocultural agenda too. As Harper put it: 

On a wide range of public-policy questions, including foreign affairs and defence, criminal justice and corrections, family and childcare, and healthcare and social services, social values are increasingly the really big issues.

Canadian conservatism, in other words, must strive for a synthesis between liberal ideals of individual autonomy and freedom and traditional understandings of social norms and values. Jason Kenney, Stephen Harper, and others have referred to this intellectual and political tradition as “ordered liberty.” 

The subject of online pornography for minors is arguably a prime one for conservatives’ conception of order to trump their commitment to freedom. The negative effects of ubiquitous porn in general and for young people in particular are quite overwhelming. Evidence tells us that the harms extend from individuals to social relationships and ultimately society as a whole. There’s certainly a conceptual case therefore that individual freedoms related to accessing pornography—particularly for minors—ought to be curtailed in the name of the social good. 

The details of course matter. There will be an onus on Poilievre at some point to outline how the goal of age verification would be effectuated. A current Senate bill that’s supposed to be taken up in the House of Commons is vague on how it should be implemented and who is ultimately responsible for overseeing it. But even if these are complex questions, they’re presumably not intractable. The British government is currently working on them as part of the coming into force of its own legislation. There are doubtless lessons to learn from its imperfect experience

But for now, Poilievre’s announcement is as important for its symbolism as its substance. It signals that he’s not merely a live-and-let-live libertarian. His worldview is instead more textured than his rhetoric sometimes reveals. It makes one wonder in what other instances we may see him diverge from a strict libertarian position in pursuit of the “balance” that Harper envisioned more than 20 years ago.

In the meantime, it’s worth acknowledging the key role that Hub contributor Ginny Roth has played in building a first-principles and policy-based case in favour of the position that Poilievre articulated this week. She’s been a consistent voice at The Hub for what she describes as a “conservative feminism”, including an August 2023 column that advanced the case for “age-gating” online pornography, and deserves a lot of credit for contributing to the intellectual conditions that led to Poilievre’s surprising announcement. It’s a valuable reminder of the power of ideas in politics. 

The Millennial influence on the Conservative Party is only growing

This week, the Canadian Club Toronto hosted a much-anticipated panel discussion with Millennial Conservative MPs Adam Chambers, Melissa Lantsman, and Shuvaloy Majumdar as well as prospective candidate Sabrina Maddeaux. The sold-out event was ably moderated by Hub contributor Ginny Roth. 

Although its general theme was the state of Canadian Conservative politics, the conversation’s underlying idea was the generational change represented by the participants themselves. They personify the growing influence of Millennial Conservatives (and conservatives) in our politics. It’s fitting that the event was held on the same day that Statistics Canada reported that Millennials have overtaken Baby Boomers as the country’s large demographic group. 

Canadian Conservatism (and conservatism) is increasingly a microcosm of this demographic shift in the broader society. Yet, as I’ve previously written, its major generational transformation has gone largely underreported by the mainstream media. The political consequences are nevertheless bound to be significant. 

The Parliament of Canada’s website makes it somewhat challenging to conduct an apples-to-apples comparison of the age distribution of the different parliamentary caucuses. But a cursory review of the Conservative shadow cabinet and the Trudeau government’s own cabinet (as well as the caucuses overall) is suggestive that the Conservatives are on balance younger than the Liberals. Pierre Poilievre for instance is roughly eight years younger than Justin Trudeau. Chambers and Lantsman (who are both members of the Conservative shadow cabinet) are between 15 and 17 years younger than their Liberal counterparts. 

These generational differences were on display at the Canadian Club event. The discussion covered a set of issues that wouldn’t have necessarily animated previous gatherings of conservatives. One example: There was a unique focus on fertility rates, family formation, and the role of government policy to improve the conditions for families to flourish. 

It’s not that previous generations of Conservatives (and conservatives) were indifferent to these questions. But rather their attention and focus were mostly dedicated to the issues that had been part of their own formative political experiences. As a result, the centre of gravity for a lot of Conservative (and conservative) Baby Boomers was the economic stagnation and fiscal crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. They came of age litigating debates about taxes, spending, and the size of government in the economy. 

While these issues still matter to Millennial Conservatives (and conservatives), they’ve since been superseded by a new set of concerns that sit at the nexus of the so-called “success sequence.” The promise of educational returns, marriage, home ownership, and family formation has been fundamentally disrupted in the modern era and, in turn, led to a reorientation of conservative priorities.

Consider the following: a previous study by the Cardus Institute has found that more than half of Canadians in working-class jobs are now over-credentialized. Mortgage eligibility in the City of Toronto is increasingly limited to those with household incomes in the top ten percent. The average age of first-time mothers has increased to 31.6 years old. And research from last year tells us that Canadian women are having fewer children than they tell pollsters they want. 

These unique challenges facing younger Canadians require a voice and, as this week’s Canadian Club event demonstrates, it’s Conservatives (and conservatives) who are disproportionately giving them expression. And so far they’re being rewarded for it. The Conservative Party now outperforms the Liberals with the 18-39 age demographic which makes it an outlier among centre-right parties across the Anglosphere. 

It prompts the question: will the next election be the first in which Millennials assert their new generational power over our politics? 

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference Feb. 28, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. John Raoux/AP Photo.
Trump’s complete and total takeover of American conservatism

American conservatives are gathered in Washington this week for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. CPAC, which was first launched in 1974 with a keynote speech by future President Ronald Reagan, is one of the highest-profile events on the conservative calendar. Thousands of grassroots attendees come each year to hear speeches from leading right-wing activists and politicians. 

CPAC’s evolution over the past several years is a metaphor for broader trends in American conservatism. It’s a long way from Reagan’s inaugural address to this year’s Reagan dinner speaker Vivek Ramaswamy. 

I attended CPAC a few times in the early 2000s. My friends and I went to hear leading political figures like George W. Bush and Paul Ryan as well as intellectuals like Charles Krauthammer and George Will. 

The conference was a bit edgy and quirky. Ron Paul regularly won the presidential straw poll, which of course was unrepresentative of his broader political support. But the overall vibe was solidly mainstream.

In the Trump years, though, CPAC has become an expression of the former president’s takeover of American conservatism. The ideas and values that used to underpin the conference (often characterized on bumper stickers or t-shirts by phrases like “faith, freedom, and free enterprise”) have been subordinated to accommodate Trump’s ideological incoherence. A former head of the American Conservative Union, which organizes and hosts the conference, recently said that “I don’t recognize it anymore. It all gravitates around Donald Trump.”

The list of this year’s speakers—including Lara Trump, Steve Bannon, and My Pillow founder Mike Lindell—reinforces his point. The conference, which used to be a platform for intra-debate among conservatives, is now carefully configured around Trump’s ego and political impulses. It’s become a cult of personality. The former president who headlines the program on Saturday has seemingly reshaped the movement that Reagan used to personify.

It’s interesting to think about the direction of causality here. Did Trump channel or change American conservatism? If it’s the former, what’s behind the change between the CPACs that I attended and this year’s conference? Is it mostly explained by a counter-radicalization to excesses on the Left or is something else going on? If it’s the latter, are people primarily motivated by affective polarization or have they actually changed their views to align them with Trump? However one answers these questions, there’s no doubt that something has changed—and I’d argue it’s for the worse.

Late last year when I interviewed George Will for Hub Dialogues I told him that we had previously met at CPAC in 2007. He replied: “that’s before it went crazy.”