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Health Canada is growing increasingly concerned with teenagers lying on the internet where weed is concerned.

That happens all the time, of course — the usual reasons being too obvious and prurient to repeat — and it usually doesn't rise to the level of the federal government, but the federal health ministry has become very worried lately that young people can get online and learn about recently legalized cannabis.

This concern has grown to such levels that the department sent an industrywide letter to all license holders asking them, essentially, to firm up the age gates on their website.

“Health Canada has noted that online promotional content on websites and social media sites is being made available by some license holders without any steps being taken to ensure that the promotion cannot be accessed by a young person,” they wrote, in a letter provided to Weedmaps News. “In other cases, the steps taken (e.g., simple self-attestation of age) may be easily circumvented by youth.” The letter told license holders that they should “immediately assess” their web presence and “implement additional steps to ensure youth cannot access promotional content” if need be.

Compliance Promotion Letter... by on Scribd

The types of age gates used by Canadian cannabis companies range from simple age gates, where a person simply has to click “yes” or “enter” to affirm that they are old enough, to more involved age-gates that require viewers to input their birthdate. It is not a very wide complexity range — entering a valid birthday is an awfully simple thing to lie about, and that's about as restrictive as age gates can be without having to function as members-only sites — but Health Canada would like all the producers to hew towards the more “complex” age-gates.

“Health Canada has made it clear that one simple 'click' attesting to age is not sufficient to prevent young persons from accessing promotional content,” Health Canada spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau, wrote in an emailed statement to Weedmaps News.

'There's No Such Thing as True Identity on the Internet'

The glaring problem — and it is a significant one — with that is that lawyers, researchers, and even the web designers who actually build the tools say that if websites really need to keep kids off websites, that age gates really aren't likely going to work.

“I don't personally believe that there really is a system that's going to guarantee that the person on your website is, No. 1, who they say that are, and [number two] the age that they say the are,” said Gregg Righter, owner of Imbibe Digital, a web design company that has built age gates for thousands of companies including a number of cannabis companies in Canada. “There's no such thing as true identity on the internet. That has not been solved for yet, anywhere.”

Health Canada fears underage users may be accessing cannabis websites and has recommended companies install age gates. Cannabis industry and computing experts, however say age gates don't solve their intended purpose of dissuading young users. (Photo by Anete Lūsiņa/Unsplash)

Trina Fraser, an Ottawa lawyer who represents a number of clients in the cannabis industry, told Weedmaps News that the industry has trouble balancing the goals and consequences of age gates. On the one hand, keeping cannabis away from kids is one of the stated goals of legalization.

“If that's seriously what you want to do, then certainly more steps than just entering a birthdate need to be taken,” she said. “The problem is, you get into those steps and you start to jeopardize the other goals of legalization.” By strengthening age gates into something more involved (such as, as Health Canada suggests, having users actually input their birthdate) “you've succeeded in annoying the actual market that you're trying to reach.”

On the other hand, relying too heavily on age gates as a method of keeping it out of the hands of kids is also ill-advised. And, considering that some of the sites that are age-gated include educational material about cannabis, in the long run keeping kids out may be counterproductive. “I understand we don't want to be enticing kids to use cannabis,” Fraser said.

She uses her own son in a hypothetical scenario: “I don't think that shielding anyone from it is going to stop his curiosity. I think the better route, frankly, is to satisfy his curiosity … I would want to go through a website with him.”

Legally speaking, age gates are perfunctory obligations that have minimal impact and carry little risk. “There's no consequence to lying,” Fraser said. “There's no legal requirement to tell the truth in that context.”

Confronting an Age-old Internet Problem

Keeping kids out of certain internet spaces is a problem practically as old as the internet itself. The most obvious is pornography — where age-gating has mostly failed and rarely gets used anymore — but other industries, like alcohol, gambling, and gaming have also had to grapple with the fact that the internet being designed in such a way as to be open to everyone regardless of age makes restrictions hard to implement in practice.

When he's working with clients, Richter tries to make this clear to clients. “We have a very candid conversation with people, particularly when they ask about satisfying government regulations,” he said. The way he thinks of age gates is as serving a communicative function, not a restrictive one. Having a user input their age, or testify to being of age, is most useful in communicating that the product or service is intended for adults.

Establishing a viable age-gate for sites with products, services, or content intended for adults is costly and difficult, according to a research team from the United Kingdom's Oxford Internet Institute. (Weedmaps News File Photo)

Even the kind of differences that Health Canada is insisting upon — thumbs up to inputting your birthday, thumbs down to simply clicking “yes” to confirm your age — are minor. Technologically speaking, it's just a different input, which at most demands a bit of extra thought by the user.

But even the kind of age gate that Health Canada wants tends, says Richter, to compel people to be dishonest, often as a function of their laziness (why take time to select your actual birthday when you can, as many people do, input any random birthday that is old enough?). In techno-speak, Richter calls this “dummy data,” and there's not much you can do to stop people from doing this. Even Fraser, a lawyer, admits that she just punches in a random birthdate that will get her into the site.

Internet researchers have looked at age-gating and come to similarly lukewarm conclusions about its implementation. In 2013, a team of researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute in the United Kingdom studied age-gating practices being used by the online gambling industry. Their conclusion was that it was possible to have an effective age-gating system, but that it was hard to do in a way that was cost-effective and minimized invasiveness.

“Examples of good practice [have] emerged, often as pragmatic solutions to imperfect conditions,” they wrote. Systems that do work tend to be onerous and require the user to share data like government ID cards, credit checks, and credit card numbers without necessarily making a purchase.

Fraser expressed further frustration not only at the way the issue was handled, but with a broader culture of opaqueness at Health Canada, of which the age-gating is only a chapter. This is by design: Jarbeau said, “Health Canada has not been prescriptive on what methods or means should be used, providing regulated parties with flexibility in how they meet the legislative requirements.”

Fraser, however, says that leaves her and others in the industry to guess at how regulators will respond. “When this is all new, when we're all trying to figure it out, when they do send warning letters they're not made public in any way so that the industry can learn from them,” she said. “I'm not expecting absolute black and white, because they can't anticipate everything. But I still think the guiding principles could be given, and some concrete examples could be given, and we would be able to connect the dots.”

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