The Conservative government's new and controversial on-line surveillance bill will likely have wide-ranging consequences for the way the Web works in Canada – even if many of these consequences are still difficult to foresee.
Dubbed "The Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act," the proposed law gives police departments the ability to obtain personal information about Canadian Internet users without a warrant. That information includes names, addresses, phone numbers and Internet Protocol Addresses, among other things.
The bill also compels Internet service providers such as Bell and Rogers to implement the technical tools required for the monitoring and storage of digital communication. Law enforcement agencies would not be able to spy on Canadians' Internet usage without a warrant, but once a warrant is obtained, the agencies can demand an ISP stores data for up to 90 days in some cases. Police departments have long complained that criminal cases involving Internet-related data are difficult to investigate because the datainformation often disappears before investigators can get their hands on it.
The government claims the proposed law standardizes what many ISPs already do. Nonetheless, the bill would take away a service provider's right to decline a warrantless request from police.
"Ninety-five per cent of the time, the police already get the info," said Michael Geist, a professor at the University of Ottawa and expert on cyber law. "What we're really talking about here is just the last 5 per cent."
Because enacting such a law would require many ISPs to install costly new hardware and software to enable widespread surveillance, the government is expected to assist the service providers with the cost of such tools, and allow grace periods for installing them. But eventually, the bill would require all ISPs to have the surveillance capability in place.
"It reshapes what the Internet looks like in Canada, it creates a full surveillance infrastructure," Prof. Geist said. "Once it's there, there's no turning back."
Supporters of the bill argue that it regulates what is currently an ad hoc relationship between police and ISPs.
"What this legislation does is place a great deal of audits and restrictions in place," said Matt Torigian, chief of Waterloo Regional Police and president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. He added that the bill would require police chiefs to designate only a limited number of officers who can ask for warrantless information.
"Whatever information is obtained, it's necessary to report what was asked for, what was obtained and what it was used for," he said.
Still, there are some outstanding questions about the bill. The government has yet to provide detailed information about the cost of the technical infrastructure ISPs must install. Nor is it clear just how sparingly police officers will use the warrantless information request powers. Ottawa has largely framed the bill as a response to serious Internet-based crimes such as child pornography. But some of the proposed uses of the bill, such as alerting someone when their stolen property has been recovered, don't fit that framing.
"There's a good reason why telcos shouldn't disclose personal information when the police have got a kid's bike and are looking to return it," Prof. Geist said.