OTTAWA – The Conservative government has abandoned its controversial and much-maligned Internet surveillance bill, legislation it once claimed was crucial to stopping child pornographers.
Less than a year ago support for Bill C-30, the so-called Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act, was presented to Canadians by the government as a binary choice.
“He can either stand with us or stand with the child pornographers,” Public Safety Minister Vic Toews scolded a Liberal critic in the House of Commons last February.
The comment set off a public fire storm concerning the Internet and personal privacy — a nasty fight that resulted in unsavoury details of Toews’ divorce being splashed across the web by a Liberal party operative.
Toews, who introduced the legislation, did not attend Monday’s news conference where Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said Bill C-30 is dead.
After announcing changes to emergency warrantless wiretap laws, Nicholson let drop that C-30 was gone, in response to a reporter’s question — an inquiry the minister was clearly expecting.
“We will not be proceeding with Bill C-30 and any attempts we will have to modernize the Criminal Code will not contain the measures in C-30 — including the warrantless mandatory disclosure of basic subscriber information, or the requirement for telecommunications service providers to build intercept capabilities within their systems,” Nicholson said.
“Any modernization of the Criminal Code … will not contain those.”
The legislation would have forced Internet service providers to maintain systems that allowed police to intercept and track online communications.
It also would have given police, intelligence and Competition Bureau officers warrantless access to Internet subscriber information, including name, address, telephone number, email address and Internet protocol address.
Police said they needed these powers to track child pornographers, among others.
“We have inadvertently created safe havens for those who exploit technology to traffic in weapons, drugs and people,” Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu, the president of the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs, wrote in an op-ed last November.
“It is a boon to pedophile networks, money launderers, extortionists, deceitful telemarketers, fraudsters and terrorists. Cyber bullies communicate their vitriol with impunity.”
Chu said police were “handcuffed by legislation introduced in 1975, the days of the rotary telephone.”
Dick Fadden, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said he was not aware the bill was to be shelved.
“We said all along that there were some aspects of it that would be helpful to us,” Fadden told reporters on Parliament Hill following a committee appearance on another matter. “It’s not absolutely critical for us to do our work.”
The proposed legislation infuriated a wide cross-section of opponents, including privacy and civil liberties advocates and many conservative libertarians who opposed what they called Big Brother oversight in the legislation.
“I don’t think we should underestimate the significance of a majority government backing down on a piece of its legislation,” Michael Geist, the chair of Internet and E-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, said in an interview.
“This is truly unprecedented within the context of this government certainly.”
Nicholson had little to say Monday when asked about police concerns over child pornography, noting the government was responding to Canadians “who have been very clear on this.”
The debate over modernizing surveillance of the Net has been going on for a decade, said Geist, and police have yet to clearly demonstrate the need for some of the warrantless powers they were seeking. Examples of investigations hampered or stopped by the current legislation have not been provided.
“It was bad policy, badly marketed and the government had little choice but to kill it,” said Geist.
“If all you’re left with is trying to market a piece of legislation using a bunch of scare tactics, I think Canadians see through that.”
Charmaine Borg, the NDP critic for digital issues, called the death of the Internet surveillance law a “great victory and a way forward for politics.”
She said more than half of Albertans — “the base of the Conservative party” — opposed Bill C-30.
“We saw people from across Canada speaking out,” said Borg. “I think that demonstrates that if you fight hard enough and if you speak up, eventually they’ll listen.”
Another piece of legislation, Bill C-12, remains before Parliament. It would make it easier for Internet service providers, email hosts and social media sites to voluntarily share personal information about customers with authorities.
Nicholson also announced changes Monday that will ensure police can tap people’s phones without a warrant in cases of emergency or imminent harm.
The government’s proposals fall in line with recommendations from the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously last spring that warrantless wiretaps constitute a breach of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The high court gave the government a year to come up with changes to address its concerns.
Nicholson said under the new rules, anyone whose communications have been intercepted in situations of imminent harm must be notified by police within 90 days.
There will also be an annual report compiled on the use of imminent harm wiretaps, and only police — and not other peace officers — will be able to use them.
“We are including all the safeguards that (the Supreme Court justices) required and they suggested,” said Nicholson.