Government tries to hide return of online spying in ‘cyberbullying’ bill

This week Justice Minister Peter MacKay introduced Bill C-13; legislation that is being touted as a solution to the serious issue of cyberbullying, but which on closer examination seems to be little more than a carbon copy of the controversial Bill C-30 with a new title.

And Bill C-30 itself was a reboot of Bills C-50, 51, and 52, introduced in 2010. These were reintroductions of the same provisions in C-46 and 47 from 2009, and these bills were remarkably similar to C-74 from 2005. In short, various governments going back for over a decade have been trying to pass the same consistently rejected online surveillance legislation, and have offered up a range of timely justifications.

First this legislation was necessary to bring Canada in line with the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime. Then terrorism became the motivator, following the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001. Organized crime was also cited, and more recently, former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews claimed that increased online surveillance powers were necessary to stop child pornography (and that anyone not supporting the bill was therefore siding with child pornographers). And now online surveillance is being justified as an attempt to prevent cyberbullying.

The rationale changes but the legislation stays pretty much the same.

When the now all-too-familiar legislation was brought back last year in the form of Bill C-30, it was vehemently opposed by Canadians (including Conservative MPs), prompting then-Justice Minister Rob Nicholson to reassure the public that “We will not be proceeding with Bill C-30 and any attempts that we will continue to have to modernize the Criminal Code will not contain the measures contained in C-30.”

And yet that seems to be exactly what the government has done; much of Bill C-13 is almost a cut-and-paste of C-30. The major difference is that the overly broad surveillance provisions are rolled up with provisions dealing with a genuine problem (cyberbullying). Can we now expect Justice Minister Peter MacKay to stand in the House next week and declare ‘you can stand with us or you can stand with the cyberbullies’?

Although it goes against the government’s habits, this bill should be split up so we can have a full debate on both the cyberbullying provisions and the resurrected C-30 provisions. Not much has changed since we saw them the last time, but in case you’ve forgotten, here are the high/lowlights:

  • Production orders for transmission data (metadata) and location data can be made at a lower standard. This is concerning because metadata can be more sensitive than content in terms of what it reveals about us- it is the data that shows who we communicate with, when, where, for how long, through what medium, and how frequently, among a host of other things.
  • Private sector organizations are given immunity for offering voluntary assistance. This means that there is no reason for companies to decline to turn over user data voluntarily- even when no warrant is presented.
  • A lower standard is required to compel service providers to preserve customer communications. This is especially concerning when paired with private sector immunity, as once the information is collected, service providers could choose to voluntarily turn it over to police without a warrant.
  • The inclusion of software as an ‘unauthorized device’ that could be used to obtain a telecom service without payment. Far from preventing cyberbullying, this is clearly a very different kind of offense that is being lumped in.

The government has announced Bill C-13 will be given Second Reading next week, after which it will presumably go to committee.

It’s time for the House to split this bill, to allow for debate on measures to deal with cyberbullying to happen independently of the resurrection of overbroad online surveillance. Unless the government is afraid of what its own MPs might have to say about it…