By Amber Daugherty
The federal government this week canceled a controversial Internet surveillance act, Bill C-30, in a move that has critics cheering – and others wondering what will come next.
“This is a victory for every Canadian!” Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, said about the move Monday to scrap the bill.
“The death of Bill C-30 upholds our fundamental right to privacy, and in turn, preserves our freedoms,” she said.
The Conservative government introduced the bill last February. Its aim was to make it easier for police and government officials to monitor online activity of persons of interest.
David Fewer, director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, said under current laws, if police or government officials want more information on someone, they must ask service providers – Facebook, Google, Hotmail, etc. – to give them access to that person’s information online.
“Those kinds of organizations have the choice about whether or not they want to comply with the police request or whether they want to tell the police to go get a warrant,” he told Humber News.
The new bill would have skipped that asking phase, demanding information that could include anything from cell phone numbers to IP addresses to the contents of email inboxes.
Currently, police already have access to anything that’s public online. If a Facebook account is public, they can collect information from it, Fewer said.
“There’s some evidence that suggests the police are scooping up lots of this data regardless of whether or not you’re a person of interest,” he said.
“It would have made the internet a closed and paranoid space.”
Bill C-30, also known as the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act, has drawn criticism and concern from many groups since its first reading.
Lindsey Pinto is communications manager of openmedia.ca, an organization that runs the site stopspying.ca, which encouraged its visitors to sign a petition protesting the act.
“It would have made the internet a closed and paranoid space,” Pinto said.
“That is something we object to because we want Canadians to feel empowered online and not to feel like there’s someone watching over their shoulder.”
Conservative MPs touted the bill for targeting child predators, and attacking online criminal activity.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told the House of Commons last year that people “can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.”
Ryan Burton, director of IT Planning at Humber College, said the issue isn’t black and white.
“We have to find that balance between what it is that we consider to be private to us,” he said, “and what it is that we feel we want to have done.”
The aim he said is to protect individuals or specifically children.
“I value my privacy but as a father with two kids I also like knowing that they’re safe,” he said.
The bill had many opponents.
“We’ve listened to the concerns of Canadians who have been very clear on this,” Nicholson said on Monday in the House of Commons.
“We need much greater transparency by our internet service providers in terms of how they protect personal information.”
Still, Fewer said the decision may be part of a bigger strategy.
“I think the government has decided from a strategic perspective that this legislation has too much negative baggage attached to it and that it needs a reboot,” Fewer said.
“They’ve got to be much more sophisticated,” he said.
A new bill has now emerged out of Monday’s announcement. Bill C-55, which is a piece of the original Bill C-30, would make it legal for the government or police to wiretap without a warrant in an emergency situation.
The conditions for that action including informing the subject of the wiretapping within 90 days, and requiring the government to publish an annual report detailing its wiretap actions.
Some say this may not be the last Canadians hear about Internet surveillance.
“In the absence of any information about law enforcement requests to service providers for user data and how they are handled, we can only assume they are routine and widespread,” the University of Toronto’s Andrew Clement, told Humber News.
“We need much greater transparency by our internet service providers in terms of how they protect personal information,” said Clement, who is coordinator of the university’s information policy research program.
Fewer said even though Monday’s announcement possibly paved the way for similar bills, it may also have prevented authorities from legal missteps.
“We actually do law services a disservice if we grant them powers with inadequate supervision,” he said.
“They are then prone to abuse them and that gives everybody a black eye.”