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Justice Minister Peter MacKay. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Justice Minister Peter MacKay. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Conservatives keep new surveillance powers in cyberbullying bill Add to ...

The Conservative government has rejected calls to change a controversial cyberbullying bill, preserving a broad range of new police surveillance powers that critics warn will infringe on Canadians’ privacy rights.

The House of Commons Justice Committee wrapped up its review of Bill C-13 on Thursday, with the Conservative-dominated committee voting down nearly every proposed amendment.

They did so despite calls from the federal ‎privacy commissioner, provincial commissioners, civil liberties groups and other experts to change parts of the bill to rein in the broad surveillance powers and warrantless access to private information.

(How are Canada’s privacy laws about to change? Read The Globe’s easy explanation)

The bill was tabled as an anti-cyberbullying law, but also gives telecommunications companies immunity for handing private data over to police without a warrant. It creates a range of new surveillance warrants, such as one allowing police to install software on someone’s phone, with what critics say is too low an evidence threshold – in other words, they warn it will be too easy for police to get approval to spy on Canadians. Finally, the bill hands the broad new powers to a range of public officials, not just police.

“It’s a sad day for the respect of privacy. This is a bad day for Canadians,” said Liberal MP Sean Casey, a member of the committee. “In the name of victims of cyberbullying, wide-sweeping powers for the invasion of people’s privacy has been granted.”

Nearly all the opposition amendments, including those from Mr. Casey and NDP MP Françoise Boivin, were rejected in clause-by-clause consideration on Tuesday and Thursday.

“I’m very, very disappointed, but I’m not surprised,” Ms. Boivin said. “This is a government that’s not listening to anything but its own tune. There were some reasonable amendments there…. [it’s] another bill that we’ll have to fix when we form government.”

‎The Conservatives voted down a range of amendments that would have removed the immunity for telecommunications companies, who will be permitted to hand data over to police or other public officials, like a border guard, on request without a warrant or judicial oversight. Canadian government agencies made 1.2 million such requests in 2011.

Of 58 pages of opposition amendments, the government only accepted one, but only after changing the amendment. Mr. Casey had asked for a review within three years of the bill becoming law. The government agreed to a seven-year review – more than two federal elections from when the bill will become law.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s meaningless. Before seven years is up there’ll be a change in government and this will be reviewed and changed. So it’s a Pyrrhic victory,” Mr. Casey said.

Both he and Ms. Boivin signalled that a Liberal or NDP government would repeal or change the bill.

“I think that any progressive thinking government will do that. And I think any minority would be likely to do that,” Mr. Casey said. “This bill will be back at parliamentary committee for amendment before seven years, so the amendment that was granted today was meaningless.”

‎The bill is one of several before parliament that affect privacy rights. C-13 and S-4, the Digital Privacy Act, are not expected to pass before the summer break. Bill C-31, a budget bill that also allows the Canada Revenue Agency to hand a person’s private tax information over to police voluntarily, is expected to pass in the coming days.

Bill C-13 was tabled after high-profile bullying cases of Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons and Jamie Hubley. It is widely supported by victims’ rights groups, and government says the cyberbullying provisions – making non-consensual sharing of an intimate image a crime – go hand-in-hand with the new police powers.

‎Civil liberties groups, lawyers, privacy watchdogs and other experts, however, had called for several changes to the bill. C-13 will now return to the House of Commons. After passing third reading, it will still need to be passed by the Senate.

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