Federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart supports the government’s decision to give police contentious new “lawful access” powers in a bill aimed at preventing cyberbullying, noting that it appears Ottawa has addressed some of her office’s past concerns.
The Conservative government introduced Bill C-13 – the Protecting Children from Online Crime Act – this month with the stated goal of preventing cyberbullying, particularly the sharing of intimate images of someone without that person’s consent.
But critics quickly noted that the vast majority of the 70-page bill looks a lot like a highly controversial bill on “lawful access” called the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act that was introduced and then abandoned in 2012 over concern that it gave police too much unchecked power, including the ability to obtain information on individuals from Internet service providers without a warrant.
Ms. Stoddart – who steps down Monday after a high-profile 10-year term – was a vocal critic of the 2012 bill. She said the latest version appears to be an improvement and she doesn’t fault the government for linking lawful access and cyberbullying.
“I think it stands to reason that in order to literally police the Internet, you do need these powers. And if you want to be effective against cyberbullying, I would understand you do need extraordinary powers, so it doesn’t seem to me inappropriate,” she said. “That’s my take on it at the moment, but as we learn more, perhaps there are things in there that you don’t need.”
The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association strongly disagrees. It wants the lawful access provisions separated from the cyberbullying bill so that MPs hear from appropriate experts.
“Marrying these two things is not the way to go,” said Micheal Vonn, the association’s policy director.
Police have been calling on Ottawa to update federal surveillance and seizure powers since as far back as 1995. Starting with a 2005 bill introduced by a Liberal government, there have been several attempts to update these laws. All have failed. Ms. Stoddart said her office is conducting a deep review of the latest bill and will present its conclusions later. But at first glance, she said the government appears to have responded to her office’s main concern about a lack of judicial oversight over the proposed powers to intercept private electronic communications.
“That has been certainly partially addressed, I gather, in this bill. I won’t say there are no problems with it,” she said.
Even though her term expires on Monday, Ottawa posted the job opening only this week. That means Ottawa will need to appoint an interim commissioner.
The next permanent commissioner will have big shoes to fill, given that Ms. Stoddart has been lauded during her term for persuading companies such as Facebook to improve privacy protection. Ms. Stoddart inherited an office that was recovering from a major political storm when commissioner George Radwanski resigned in 2003 over an expenses controversy.
She said one of her proudest accomplishments is that the commission has been built up over the past 10 years to include skilled staff with expertise in information technology and the law.
She expressed disappointment, however, that she has been unable to convince the government of the need to update the Privacy Act, which governs how departments protect the privacy of Canadians.
The Privacy Commissioner is an Officer of Parliament that advocates for the privacy rights of Canadians. The office is responsible for overseeing government compliance with the Privacy Act and private sector compliance with the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. Ms. Stoddart suggested new laws in addition to cyberbullying provisions may be needed to govern how individuals treat the privacy of others.
“One of the huge changes in the last 10 years is the ability of the individual through the Internet to empower himself or herself and to be a major actor on the Internet in a way that was only possible for companies or governments 10 or 15 years ago,” she said. “But there are very few rules, certainly in terms of privacy protection that govern these individuals.”