A tough new law on cyberbullying is putting a spotlight on the Conservative government's sweeping approach to strengthening police investigative powers.
The proposed law, introduced Wednesday to crack down on Internet bullying involving the posting of nude photos, has come under harsh criticism over its omnibus-style approach. It also features new police tools for fighting terrorism, organized crime, fraud, theft of cable and Internet services, and hate propaganda.
The cyberbullying provisions, an complex attempt to protect individual privacy while also respecting free speech, are receiving little attention. Instead, an old controversy around a withdrawn Internet-surveillance bill known as Bill C-30 is being revived.
"Regrettably, the federal government is using this pressing social issue as an opportunity to resurrect much of its former surveillance legislation, Bill C-30," Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian said. She said the bill gives police wide-ranging surveillance powers that put people's privacy at risk.
In early 2012, then public safety minister Vic Toews introduced Bill C-30, which would have allowed police to conduct searches without a warrant from a judge for electronic communications such as e-mails.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay denied his government is reviving Bill C-30. Instead, he says it is simply following recommendations from an expert federal-provincial committee on cyberbullying to modernize investigative tools. Unlike in Bill C-30, using those tools will require a judicial warrant, he stressed.
Some accused him of trying to avoid a difficult debate on police surveillance of the Internet, but he said the cyberbullying bill was a good chance to update police powers to reflect the electronic age.
"Electronic communications was a gap in the Criminal Code," Mr. MacKay told CBC-TV. "Why not take the opportunity to modernize legislation that is in the realm of the Internet?" It is all consistent with the same theme: deterring what we consider to be criminal offensive behaviour."
Françoise Boivin, the New Democratic Party's justice critic, said her party is studying the extent to which the bill resembles Bill C-30. "My initial fear is seeing big elements of C-30 coming through the back door of C-13."
Sean Casey, the Liberal justice critic, said his party supports the cyberbullying crackdown in principle, but that the government is confusing people by packing unrelated items into one bill. He was uncertain about the "streamlined warrant" proposed in the bill for police searches. "Is it truly something that is just a little more expedited than a warrant or is it something closer to a warrantless search?"
Arthur Cockfield, a Queen's University law professor who specializes in privacy and new surveillance technologies, expressed concern that the bill would make police surveillance easier by lowering the standard for warrantless searches to "reasonable grounds for suspicion" rather than "reasonable grounds for belief."
Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor, said he is concerned that the bill encourages telecommunications companies and Internet service providers to reveal information on their customers without a court order. The proposed law would give immunity from lawsuits or criminal charges to any telecom company or Internet service provider that voluntarily gives out customer information.
"Law enforcement have been asking for some of these provisions for many years and there could be a good debate on the merits of many of the proposed reforms," Prof. Geist wrote on his blog. "Yet the government is signalling that it would prefer to avoid such debates, wrapping up the provisions in the cyberbullying flag."