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In Canada, Online Campaign to Protest Gov't's Digital 'Snooping Bill' Turns Nasty

BY Elisabeth Fraser | Wednesday, December 5 2012

MP Charmaine Borg outside of Canada's parliament (credit: Max Walker)

In Canada the issue of online privacy has become contentious, with experts, law enforcement officials, and legislators sharply divided. Bill C-30, formally called the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act, was tabled in the House of Commons in February. The bill proposes expanding police powers so that telecoms and Internet Service Providers would be required to turn over subscriber data without a warrant.

On one side of the debate are digital privacy advocates who say the government should not be able to seize their personal subscriber information without a warrant. On the other side are those who assert that in urgent cases, law enforcement officials should be able to access such information rapidly, in the interest of public protection.

“I think [Bill C-30] is a dangerous piece of legislation that raises serious privacy concerns,” says University of Ottawa professor and Internet guru Michael Geist. “The bill's supporters have consistently failed to provide evidence of problems with the current law, which should be the starting point for discussion.”

In response, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) argues that the bill would provide them with access to crucial information that would help them do their jobs — i.e., catch criminals.

"Do police in Canada support 'unwarranted Internet surveillance' or 'snooping'? Absolutely not!" says Timothy Smith, who handles Government Relations and Strategic Communications for the CACP. “Our concern lies with consistency and timeliness of obtaining basic subscriber information that is needed to advance an investigation and prevent further victimization.”

Smith provided techPresident with a list of incidents involving criminal acts that he claims could have been prevented if the police had been able to access digital information quickly, without having to wait for a warrant. In a case of sexual assault, a woman grabbed her assailant’s cell phone while fleeing the scene of the crime — but was denied justice, because the police had to wait two weeks for a warrant to access the subscriber’s information. By that time the account had been disconnected. Other cases involve child pornography, kidnapping, and homicide.

At the federal level, the ruling Conservative Party is squaring off against the newly elected Official Opposition — the progressive, socialist-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP). The main players could not be more different in terms of age, background and worldview — and the results have been explosive.

Charmaine Borg of the NDP is one of the youngest-ever MPs elected to the House of Commons; the 22 year-old is also the first to be assigned the Digital Issues dossier in the Shadow Parliament — the Official Opposition body responsible for holding the government to account. She is now developing a comprehensive digital strategy for issues that include online privacy, online user agreements and the digital economy.

The bilingual Montreal resident was still an undergraduate at McGill University when she became one of several neophyte politicians who rode the so-called Orange Wave of the 2011 federal elections to Parliament Hill (orange is the NDP’s official color). The NDP won 103 of the 308 seats in Parliament, replacing the Bloc Québécois, which advocates sovereignty for the largely Francophone province, as the Official Opposition in Canada’s multi-party system.

Borg’s opposition in the government is Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, of the ruling Conservative Party. Toews, 60, is a veteran politician with a reputation for being a tough-on-crime, law-and-order type. The minister’s office did not respond to interview requests.

It was Toews who tabled Bill C-30 last February. The details of the proposed legislation led his many opponents to label it the "snooping" bill.

A widely publicized online campaign against Bill C-30 quickly turned into a personal attack on Toews that amounted to a serious invasion of his own privacy. The minister probably did not help matters when he accused his opponents of "siding with child pornographers."

The online protests began as a lighthearted Twitter campaign hashtagged #TellVicEverything. Users bombarded Toews's account with tongue-in-cheek tweets that purported to detail the minutiae of their daily lives. A reporter for a policy wonk’s website aggregated some of the more amusing results, including one from the Liberal Party's candidate for leader, MP Justin Trudeau (@justinpjtrudeau, son of the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau). Trudeau tweeted: “Dear @ToewsVic: Last night I promised my wife I'd wake up early for yoga, but repeatedly snooze-buttoned instead. #TellVicEverything.”

But the campaign turned ugly when an anonymous Internet user launched a Twitter account under the handle @Vikileaks30 and used it to reveal intimate and embarrassing details of Toews’s divorce from his wife and subsequent marriage to their family babysitter, whom he had impregnated.

The media soon discovered that the anonymous tweeter was Liberal Party staffer Adam Carroll. He apologized and resigned, but has since been re-rehired and is again working for the party.

Borg says she opposed the tactics of the Vikileaks campaign. "I think it’s a pity, because the whole Vikileaks scandal took a lot of focus off the real issue — which is that the government wants to spy on you." Borg added that Bill C-30 raised many questions revolving around personal privacy issues, voicing concern that the Conservative Party's position could lead to a serious increase in online privacy violations.

Nevertheless, the bill’s progress through Parliament seems to have halted since the campaign was launched. But whether or not C-30 is permanently stalled remains to be seen.

"Ever since the public uprising that ensued, the government has kind of put (C-30) aside, and right now it’s just sitting in a drawer somewhere," says Borg. "I think the Conservative government is so embarrassed by it that they won’t try bringing this bill back in its current form, but people need to remember that it dates back to the previous Liberal government. It keeps coming back before the House in new forms — so it’s something I’m keeping my eye on."

"[The police] are clearly asking for a way to accelerate the process of obtaining a warrant," says Borg of law enforcement officials who back C-30. "If that’s the main issue, there are two sides to this. There is a need to update language concerning laws that govern wiretapping. Currently there is no digital language in the laws. But there should be ways to obtain warrants without invading our privacy, which is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

Borg highlighted differences in the laws and attitudes governing online privacy in Canada from those of the United States. "While we're one step ahead in some respects, we are one step behind in others," she said.

"We're ahead in that we actually do have an online privacy law and a Privacy Commissioner. In the United States, the FTC can impose fines if they rule a company has been at fault or deceptive in its practices — our Privacy Commissioner does not have those powers," says Borg. "That is why you see these massive lawsuits [in Canada], where people have to go to court when they find a company has acted improperly, because here in Canada there is a lack of legislation [governing the issue]."

With C-30’s future uncertain, Borg has no plans to back down on the issue. "Ultimately, it’s about the Conservative Party proving they really are committed to open government and protecting online privacy," says Borg. "And first, they need to demonstrate they understand what that means."

Elisabeth Fraser is a Canadian journalist.

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