The Conservative government’s controversial cyberbullying bill is the first target of Canada’s next privacy watchdog and now appears unlikely to pass before summer.
Daniel Therrien, nominated last week to be the next privacy commissioner, made his first appearances in the House and Senate on Tuesday. The career government lawyer, who has offered legal counsel to agencies on programs that have been called too invasive, attempted to quell criticisms of his nomination.
He stressed “privacy is certainly at risk” in Canada, expressed concern over some high-profile privacy breaches and said he believes Canadians need more control over their information. He also backed calls for a parliamentary oversight committee to keep an eye on government data monitoring.
“I hope to be able to demonstrate my impartiality through my actions,” Mr. Therrien said on Tuesday.
His appointment is expected to be formally approved as soon as Thursday, a fast-track process the NDP have called a “sham,” saying it will taint the legitimacy of the commissioner’s office. A House committee heard from Mr. Therrien for less than an hour before approving him.
One of the first things Mr. Therrien did was criticize the government. He said concerns over C-13, a cyberbullying bill that includes broad new police surveillance powers, are “very legitimate” and that the two elements should be in separate bills to offer more transparency. The bill also guarantees immunity to organizations that voluntarily give information to police, at a time when concerns have been raised that telecom companies received 1.2-million such warrantless requests in 2011.
“Absolutely, I am concerned with the issue of warrantless disclosure. And the number of these disclosures that was revealed is of great concern,” Mr. Therrien said.
As he spoke on Tuesday, other committees pushed forward on Bill C-13 and S-4, which also has privacy implications. Tory MP Bob Dechert said the committee studying C-13 added time next week to hear from Mr. Therrien. He rebuffed calls to split the bill, but said – with Parliament’s clock running down – it is unlikely it will become law before summer.
“We’ll deal with it in committee and that will probably be it until the fall,” he said.
The government last month said C-13 is a priority. Justice Minister Peter MacKay has repeatedly rejected dividing the bill and did so again on Tuesday.
Civil liberties groups had said requests to testify about C-13 were rejected or ignored due to time constraints, but Mr. Dechert suggested the additional input was not needed. “We’re hearing a lot of repetition [from witnesses]. If we were to split it into two bills, what exactly, in addition, would we do?” he said.
Mr. Therrien acknowledged his legal work for government monitoring programs. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair called it an obvious conflict, but Mr. Therrien said he did not believe he would encounter cases in which he would face a conflict of interest or be barred by solicitor-client privilege. If one did arise, “I would not hesitate to withdraw from that file” and appoint an acting commissioner, he said.
At one point, Mr. Therrien testified that he believed the legal right of privacy does not trump all others, but that it is a commissioner’s job to fight for privacy nonetheless. “I think that privacy rights are extremely important, but Canadians also want their government to act on their behalf in protecting their safety and security,” he said.
Such statements worried privacy lawyer David Fraser. “As somebody who is acutely concerned about government surveillance, I think there was a little bit more talk about ‘balance’ than I would have been excited to hear from a privacy commissioner,” Mr. Fraser said.
Interim commissioner Chantal Bernier’s term ended on Monday, leaving Canada without a commissioner until Parliament approves the next one.