Driven by a constitutional right to ‘freedom of expression’, classification of content in Canada is largely unregulated. Canada has adopted many of the standards and classification methods used in the US.
Canadian law makes the classification of films, DVDs and computer games the responsibility of the provinces and territories. Some provinces require classification of all films, while others require classification only for films which contain certain content.DVDs are classified under a voluntary system administered by the Canadian Motion Picture Association, which aggregates the classifications provided by the Provincial Classification Boards to provide for uniform classification information for the home entertainment market in Canada. DVDs are classified as G—General Audience; PG—Parental Guidance; 14A—14 or Accompanied by an Adult; 18A—18 or Accompanied by an Adult; R—Restricted; and A—Adult. In addition to the classification, most provincial boards also include information about specific reasons for a film’s classification.
The classification of computer games is also the responsibility of provinces and territories. Many Canadian provinces have adopted the ESRB classification system used in the US, and do not require developers to submit games for classification to a government body. The ESRB classifies games in six categories: EC (appropriate for children 3 and older); E (6 and older); E10+ (10 and older); T (13 and older); M (17 and older); and AO (18 and older). In addition, the ESRB uses approximately 30 ‘content descriptors’, which identify the type of content—such as violence, sex or language—that led to the classification. In some Canadian provinces, the ESRB classification is legally enforceable; in these provinces, the sale of games classified M or AO to anyone under 18 is prohibited by law. However, as in the UK, an ESRB classification can be overridden by a decision of the provincial film classification body.
Television programs are classified by television stations according to voluntary codes that are administered by the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council, an independent non-governmental organisation created by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters. Adherence to the industry codes is a condition of licensing. The classification system for television content has six categories: C—Children; C8—Children over 8 Years; G—General; PG—Parental Guidance; 14+—Over 14 Years; and 18+—Adults, and was developed in 1997 for use with the V-chip. Subscription television and free-to-air classifications are administered under different codes which have been approved by the government regulator, the Canadian Radio-Television and Communications Commission (CRTC). IPTV providers fall within the category of broadcasting distribution companies, and are licensed and regulated accordingly by the CRTC. Broadcasters are prohibited from airing programming that contains material intended exclusively for adult audiences between the hours of 6 am until 9 pm.
The Canadian government does not actively regulate access to the internet, however, websites hosted within Canada, as well as sites hosted on servers in other jurisdictions, are subject to local laws governing child pornography, defamation, anti-discrimination and copyright. Federal obscenity provisions encompass online offences and courts can require ISPs to remove material found to be ‘obscene’. ‘Obscene’ material is content in which ‘a dominant characteristic … is the undue exploitation of sex, or of sex and any one or more of the following subjects, namely, crime, horror, cruelty and violence’. Cleanfeed Canada—a coalition of ISPs, federal and provincial governments, and law enforcement bodies—is a voluntary initiative designed to filter access to foreign-hosted URLs associated with images of child sexual abuse. The list of filtered sites is compiled by cybertip.ca, an independent organisation similar to the Internet Watch Foundation in the UK.
With the exception of a 1993 amendment regarding ‘child pornography,’ Canadian criminal law does not use the word ‘pornography’ but rather ‘obscenity’. Pornographic material featuring consenting adults is regulated through the ‘obscenity’ provision of the Criminal Code, and is legal in Canada if it is not deemed to be obscene. Pornographic material is readily accessible in retail stores through the sale and exchange of DVDs, videos, films, books and magazines, as well as in theatres, on television and over the Internet. Neither internet pornography nor pornographic publications are required to be classified; however, most provinces require that pornographic films and DVDs be classified before release and provide for the removal of content depicting bestiality, necrophilia, child pornography, and other ‘obscene’ content. The sale of restricted material to persons aged under 18 (or 19 in certain provinces) is prohibited, though possession by such individuals is not an offence.
Accessing or possessing child pornography, regardless of knowledge or intent, is a criminal offence punishable by up to five years imprisonment, while the punishment for making or distributing of child pornography is up to ten years imprisonment.
Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s 163(8).