Despite a comfortable position alongside a myriad of disturbing new laws, the government’s proposed Internet surveillance legislation, known publicly as lawful access, was conspicuously absent from the Conservative’s recent omnibus crime bill.
This came as a welcome surprise to many, considering that the prime minister had pledged to pass the legislation within the first 100 days of the new parliament. When it was ultimately withheld, some advocacy groups declared an early victory for privacy and online freedom in our country.
Yet in truth, there’s no real indication that the bill is gone for good. Canadian Internet users are still in the government’s judicial crosshairs.
First introduced in the last (40th) session of parliament, bills C-50, C-51 and C-52 would have granted the government and law enforcement agencies a slew of legal tools to violate the privacy of Canadian citizens.
According to an analysis by the CBC, these tools included, but were not limited to: the power to intercept private communications without a warrant under some circumstances, the ability to constantly monitor the flow of all online information, and the capacity to track down the names and locations of individuals sending and receiving suspicious data.
Additionally, Internet service providers would be required by law to implement a tracking and monitoring infrastructure to assist in the interception of customers’ communications. The cost of instituting these measures would likely cripple some smaller, independent ISPs.
Following their tabling last spring, the bills were decried from all sides. One of the loudest voices was OpenMedia.ca. The advocacy group based out of British Columbia is the same organization that was behind the successful “Stop the Meter” petition against usage-based billing, which garnered more than 450,000 signatures last year.
OpenMedia spearheaded a similar campaign against lawful access, dubbed “Stop Online Spying,” which as of this month had reached over 70,000 signatures. As a result, they were quick to take credit for the dearth of online spying measures in the Conservatives’ crime omnibus.
While there should be no doubting the efficacy and impact of the petition, or the immense importance of groups like OpenMedia, their celebration is entirely premature.
In a recent blog post, Michael Geist, law professor at the University of Ottawa and expert on Internet and e-commerce law, speculates that the lawful access legislation will almost certainly be reintroduced in coming days, in an all too familiar and invasive incarnation.
The Conservatives’ inevitable legislation will not allow for wide-spread warrantless online wiretapping per se, but Geist stresses that it would still consist of a dangerous approach “focused on information disclosure, mandated surveillance technologies, and new police powers.”
These issues raise genuine privacy and free speech concerns. Geist maintains that government has not made a strong case for the bill. He adds the conservatives have not revealed the bill’s cost or who would pay for it.
On the heels of his omnibus crime bill, lawful access serves as yet another stark example of Stephen Harper’s inexhaustible effort to move Canada backwards — or South, depending on how you look at it.
A subversion of privacy of this magnitude comes as no surprise considering the government’s frightening adoption of American-style judicial practices. Lawful access is par for the course following harsher punishments for repeat and young offenders, mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and a booming influx in prison spending — though to be fair, you do have to have a place to lock up all the pedophiles, potheads and file sharers.
No matter how it’s framed, this southward slide is not sustainable. Striving to become more like the United States, especially in terms of privacy rights, is wrong-headed and irresponsible.
Lawful Canadian citizens, as well as citizens of the Internet worldwide, are obliged to stand against legislation in the vein of lawful access — laws that, according to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, “substantially diminish the privacy rights of Canadians.” Fortunately, there are a number of ways to have your voice heard.
A few premature (albeit enthusiastic) declarations of “victory” notwithstanding, OpenMedia remains on the forefront of the campaign against lawful access. There is no reason why their latest petition, available to sign at StopSpying.ca, should not match or exceed the half a million signatures gathered against usage-based billing. If you’re looking for a more tangible offline approach, reaching out to your Member of Parliament and letting them know how you feel is always a viable option.
The reality is though, despite the best efforts of rational people, the Conservatives will most likely pass their lawful access legislation soon, in some form or another. While outcry and petitions may dampen the blow when it lands this time, these laws are only the beginning. As privacy in general becomes more of an illusion by the day, holding on to what’s left will be of the utmost importance.
graphic: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf