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john ibbitson

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

What you think of the Conservatives' new bill to expand police surveillance of the web may depend on what you think of the long-gun registry and the long-form census.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews will argue that the new legislation, to be introduced Tuesday afternoon, will grant the government access to nothing more than the Internet equivalent of a telephone book, which police need to help track criminals and terrorists.

Mr. Toews takes a dim view of anyone who would question the need for that access. In the Commons, Monday, he said people "can either stand with us or with the child pornographers."

Privacy commissioners in Ottawa and the provinces will not like being called such vile names. They have warned that the Conservatives are violating privacy rights by demanding the authority to collect IP addresses, email addresses, mobile phone numbers and other identifying information on anyone who interests them without a warrant.

The government is unlikely ever to change the privacy commissioners' minds, or to be swayed by their criticism. Politically, what matters is whether the large-C Conservatives can make the case for the bill with small-c conservatives.

The new legislation, commonly referred to as the lawful access bill, would not give the government the power to track your movements, either online or through your phone, without a warrant. But it would require telecom companies to give up identifying information on clients if asked by the police.

Jennifer Stoddart, the federal privacy commissioner, and Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's privacy commissioner, maintain that the federal government hasn't demonstrated the need for these new powers. Ms. Cavoukian is particularly vocal, calling the new bill "surveillance by design."

There are powerful arguments on both sides. None of us want to handicap police in their efforts to track those who would defraud us, harm children or plot acts of terror. But we must also be wary of granting the state new powers that could restrict the sovereignty of citizens.

On their face, the arguments of the privacy commissioners should find resonance with conservative voters who opposed the federal long-gun registry and the mandatory long-form census. Both were examples of the state intruding in the lives of citizens in search of information it had no right to demand, opponents of the registry and the census maintained. The Conservative Party led that opposition.

Applying that same principle, should the state be allowed to have new powers to know who we are on the web – in effect, to register our online identities – without a judicial warrant or even our knowledge or consent?

Claiming "you're with us or you're with the child pornographers" doesn't even begin to make the case, Mr. Toews.

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