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Canadian government has its head in the sand with privacy

A vocal chorus including prominent Conservatives and the Prime Minister’s own privacy commissioner nominee are calling for Bill C-13 to be split, but the pleas are falling on deaf ears.

Conservative leader and Canada's Prime Minister Harper pauses while speaking during a campaign stop at an automobile parts factory in Brampton

There’s stubborn, and then there’s Canada’s federal government.

The steadfast refusal by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Justice Minister Peter MacKay to listen to reason when it comes to Bill C-13, their proposed cyber-bullying privacy legislation, is really quite astounding. They’re like the figurative donkeys that refuse to budge, which might be funny if the rights of the entire country weren’t at stake.

C-13, properly known as the “Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act,” has been roundly criticized since its introduction last year for being too broad. While few pundits have disagreed with its supposed intent – the outlawing of cyber-bullying – the proposed legislation also covers all manner of unrelated activities, from stealing cable signals to wire taps.

The most contentious part of the bill is that it would give immunity to telecom service providers when they hand over subscriber information to security agencies and polices forces. With customers having no legal recourse against those companies in such situations, the already voluminous extent to which they are sharing this information will certainly increase dramatically.

A resounding chorus of voices have called on the government to split C-13 into two separate bills – one dealing specifically with cyber-bullying and another containing the contentious elements. Here’s just a partial roll call of those who have chimed in:

  • Carol Todd, Allan Hubley and Glenford Canning – parents of three teenagers who took their own lives because of bullying – have all decried the government’s attempt to piggyback its lawful access agenda on the back of a very real problem. “I don’t want to see our children to be victimized again by losing privacy rights. I am troubled by some of these provisions condoning the sharing of Canadians’ privacy information without proper legal process,” Todd told a House of Commons committee last month.
  • A group of civil liberties authorities, consumer watch dogs and privacy experts have written a letter to point out that C-13 “is not receiving the full and robust consideration its privacy‐threatening elements deserve before the Standing House of Commons Committee on Justice and Human Rights.” Signatories include the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and Open Media.
  • The Canadian Bar Association submits that “an independent comprehensive review of privacy interests in the context of electronic investigations” should be conducted and suggests that thresholds on obtaining warrants for getting individuals’ information should be raised.
  • Numerous media outlets are urging Harper and MacKay to reconsider, with a Globe and Mail editorial arguing that every Canadian’s cellphone account should be their “castle.” In an excellent piece for the Ottawa Citizen, Justin Ting writes that police agencies shouldn’t be allowed to go fishing for citizens’ data based on the tingling of their Spidey-Sense.
  • Former Conservative public safety minister Stockwell Day says the government needs to be “careful in going too far and limiting even things like free speech, [or using] invasive techniques that could be employed by policing… I’m hoping they take another look at this and kind of curtail some of those powers.”
  • University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist makes a very poignant point: “Given that lawful access has been the subject of more than a decade of debate, the likelihood that the bill will pass through the committee stage without hearing from a single privacy commissioner is shocking.”
  • The privacy commissioners of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia have also written a letter expressing that they are “deeply concerned” with the proposed legislation, saying that it “will entrench and possibly encourage the expansion of warrantless disclosure of private sector data to law enforcement by providing broad immunity for such practices.” The commissioners suggested that hearings on the bill be postponed until a federal privacy commissioner can be properly installed, to speak to the issue.
  • Speaking of which, even the government’s own candidate for that job – assistant deputy attorney general Daniel Therrien – also believes splitting C-13 in two is the right move. Therrien’s nomination as privacy commissioner has itself come under fire given his ties to the Justice Department, but he is clearly looking to establish his impartiality. “I would agree with the Canadian Bar Association that the bill should be divided and that there should be an independent review of privacy interests in the context of electronic investigations,” he said this week.

The government’s response? With MacKay repeatedly affirming that he won’t split the bill in two nor wait until a federal privacy commissioner has been installed so that he (or she) can have a say, it’s akin to sticking its figurative fingers in its figurative ears and singing “la la la la la la, I can’t hear you!”

This should come as no surprise to a government that routinely ignores calls for reason. Harper and company deflected widespread appeals to keep the long-form census in 2010, as well as to change a clause regarding digital locks in their copyright modernization legislation in 2012. More recently, Industry Minister James Moore has insisted that federal wireless policies have been successful in creating more competition and driving down prices, despite the opposite being painfully obvious to just about any Canadian.

In the 1828 U.S. election, opponents of Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Jackson twisted his name to “jackass.” Jackson ultimately ended up liking how the image of a donkey referred to the common man, so the animal became the unofficial symbol of the party.

The Canadian Conservatives might want to consider adopting the donkey as their mascot too – not for the common folk connotations, but rather because it’s a fine representation of just how unreasonable they can be.

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