The Harper government is temporarily parking controversial legislation that would grant new powers to authorities to police the Internet while it consults on how to rewrite it to assuage privacy concerns among Canadians and within caucus.
The Commons resumes sitting on Monday after a week-long break.
The process of sending the bill to MPs for study is not scheduled to start in the week of Feb. 27, and sources familiar with the government’s plans say the Conservatives are in “no rush” to pass the legislation. They said the bill is unlikely to be moved forward in the next couple of weeks.
Rattled by a public backlash over Bill C-30, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced in mid-February the Conservatives would take the unusual step of referring it to a committee for amendments before second reading. This means that MPs will be asked to recast the bill before the Commons has agreed in principle to approve it.
Conservatives make no secret of the fact this isn’t Stephen Harper’s favourite bill, meaning that, during a slow economic recovery, he’d rather be associated with other legislative priorities.
Unlike most tough-on-crime bills, its measures did not spring from grassroots concerns or fears. The legislation is based on requests from the public security bureaucracy in Canada to bolster police powers for the Internet age that the Tories have felt compelled to address.
“There’s a tough-on-crime constituency for locking up offenders for a longer time, but not for greater Internet surveillance,” said one government official.
People familiar with the government’s plans say Ottawa is still determined to move forward with C-30 but does not want to be tied down to a time frame. The next step would be a Commons debate of up to five hours before sending it to committee for review.
Tory supporters have not always agreed on one of the most controversial provisions of the legislation. Former public safety minister Stockwell Day, for instance, has said he wasn’t keen during his tenure on granting police power to gain access to information without a warrant. Mr. Toews’ bill, however, as currently written, would allow that for the identities of Web users.
The Conservatives knew they would have a challenge on their hands with this bill. They took care not to roll it into their omnibus crime bill, which would have made passing that legislation very difficult, Tories acknowledge.
In some respects, the Conservatives still treated C-30 like previous crime bills. They tried to split support in their favour on the bill, for instance, by calling it the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act. This failed, the government official said, when Mr. Toews overplayed his hand, declaring that those opposed to the legislation stood “with the child pornographers.”
“This went from being another tough-on-crime bill to being something where the minister had done something that was so far out whack with the standards of polite discourse that it kind of scared [supporters]off.”
Police forces and provincial governments still support the bill, and the Harper Conservatives are counting on these backers to speak out loudly in the weeks and months ahead when it tries to rewrite the bill at committee.
Privacy advocates say the legislation’s problems go far beyond the concern that has dominated debate – the provision that would give police access to identifying information about Internet users without having to apply for a warrant.
The bill would also compel Internet service providers to install equipment to allow police, with warrants, to track the activities of users more easily. Ottawa has estimated this would cost as much as $80-million over the next four years and has not disclosed the cost to Internet service providers.
These companies say they’re worried that the full cost will be much higher.
“We only have to recall the creation of the gun registry to appreciate that any time government tries to enhance its crime-fighting ability, things get expensive in a hurry,” said Tom Copeland, chair of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers.
Critics warn the bill would usher in a new level of state-sanctioned surveillance in Canada and authorities would increasingly find reasons to snoop on Internet activity.
“It’s going to fundamentally alter the Internet in Canada,” Michael Geist, an expert in Internet law at the University of Ottawa. “It’s in a sense Internet 2.0 and it’s one that will embed surveillance capabilities throughout the network.”
He said law enforcement officials should be obliged to justify these new surveillance capabilities when C-30 goes before MPs for review. “Where is the evidence that this isn’t more fundamentally a resource issue, where law enforcement doesn’t have resources they need to use existing tools?”
Prof. Geist said other countries that have granted police similar powers and capabilities have seen a rise in the use of surveillance by authorities – far beyond fighting child pornography.
“There really is no turning back once these surveillance capabilities are installed,” he said. “We’re not going to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in surveillance technologies and not use them.”
Prof. Geist warns the bill appears to give the Canadian government power to order Internet service providers to increase surveillance and tracking capacities beyond what’s outlined in the legislation and even bind them to additional confidentiality in the process.
It would also give Ottawa the power to install its own equipment on Internet service provider networks, he says.
Section 64 of the legislation, he cautions, stipulates that in case Ottawa has overlooked some aspect of the law, it will have an additional, catch-all regulatory power it can use to spell out more authority “generally, for carrying out the purposes and provisions of this act.”
Governments are quickly learning that decisions affecting the Internet or online privacy are hot-button matters for Canadians.
Just last year, the Harper government intervened after a public backlash to stop a regulatory decision that could have spelled an end to unlimited Web access packages offered by smaller Internet providers.
This year, the public pushback against C-30, a bill that’s been introduced several times before during minority Parliaments, was bigger than ever.
Ekos pollster Frank Graves said over the past decade he’s tracked a significant decline in the number of Canadians who support giving police more powers at the expense of privacy. He notes this has occurred as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have receded in time.
“We have moved from the shadow of Sept. 11, where almost three times as many people agreed that the police should have more powers even if it meant less privacy to today where those who disagree actually outnumber those who agree,” Mr. Graves said.
“In other words, there has been a dramatic societal transformation where the unquestioned dominance of security – in the aftermath of Sept. 11 – has been reversed.”