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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announces the Conservative government's decision to shut down two prisons at an Ottawa news conference on April 19, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announces the Conservative government's decision to shut down two prisons at an Ottawa news conference on April 19, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

John Ibbitson

How the Toews-sponsored Internet surveillance bill quietly died Add to ...

The Internet surveillance legislation sponsored by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has disappeared down a dark legislative hole. For all intents and purposes, the bill is dead.

If the Harper government still wants to pass a law that would make it easier for police to track people who use the web to commit crimes, it will have to start from scratch.

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That new bill, if there is one, will probably be shepherded by a different minister. That’s how much damage this botched legislation inflicted on the government and on Mr. Toews.

Bill C-30, also known as the lawful access legislation, would allow police to compel Internet service providers to cough up identifying information about anyone using the Internet.

The authorities would not be able to track a person’s activity on the web without a warrant. But they could find out whose name is attached to an IP address without that warrant, and without the person’s knowledge or consent, which is why both the federal and provincial privacy commissioners strongly objected to the bill as an unjustified violation of privacy rights.

Many Tory MPs are also said to be unhappy with the bill. They wonder why the government would abolish both the mandatory long-form census and the long-gun firearms registry in the name of privacy rights, and then violate those same rights with a bill that lets the government snoop on people who go online.

Mr. Toews responded to the criticism by declaring critics “can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.” This was fatal. As the Public Safety Minister reeled from online attacks – including from a Liberal staffer who tweeted the details of his divorce – the government hastily retreated, declaring the bill needed further study.

What has happened since? Nothing. And that nothing is everything.

Normally, after a bill receives first reading, debate begins on second reading, which is approval in principle. Once the bill passes second reading, it goes to a committee, where only minor amendments are permitted before the bill returns for third and final reading.

Instead of this usual route, House Leader Peter Van Loan decided to send C-30 to the public safety committee first, where it is supposed to be extensively revised, before returning to the House for second and third reading.

But before any of that can happen, the rules state that the House must debate the motion to send the bill to committee. That debate must last at least five hours – in effect, one sitting day.

But that debate hasn’t happened. And sources report that it won’t happen before the House rises for summer recess. That makes C-30 dead in the water.

Of course, the Conservatives could decide to send C-30 it to the public safety committee in the autumn. But it would take months to rewrite the bill, and then weeks to get it through second and third reading, before the bill went to the Senate for further study.

Long before then, Stephen Harper is expected to prorogue Parliament in preparation for a new Throne Speech. With that prorogation, Bill C-30 will quietly expire.

Before proroguing the House, Mr. Harper is expected to shuffle his cabinet. Public Safety is near the top of the list of portfolios in need of a fresh face. A new minister will have the job of putting together a new lawful-access bill, one that doesn’t unite opposition parties, privacy commissioners and the Tory caucus.

To assuage these concerns, the new bill will have to restrict the right of police to acquire any information about someone’s online identity without first obtaining a judicial warrant.

“If they truly removed the warrantless access provisions of the bill, across the board, then we would be delighted to sit with the government and work with them on additional amendments that we would still be seeking, but that would be doable,” said Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, in an interview.

But C-30 in its present form will never become law. The Conservatives’ law-and-order agenda has finally had a comeuppance. It was delivered by everyone who wants to be left alone online.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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