As the privacy fight turned ugly, democracy made a comeback

While a certain amount of electronic surveillance is justified, the possibility that such information could be made available without a warrant should be of concern to every Canadian

As the privacy fight turned ugly, democracy made a comeback

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has long been seen as the bluntest tool wielded by the Harper government in its misguided law-and-order campaign. Last week, we found out just how blunt, and misguided.

Bill C-30, also known as the “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act,” provoked a storm of political and public debate across the country due to a provision that allows police to gain access to any Internet subscriber’s IP address (among other identifiers) in order to track their online activity. This would be permitted without a warrant in “extraordinary circumstances.”

While a certain amount of electronic surveillance is justified in the interests of peace, order and good government, the possibility that such information could be made available without a warrant should be of concern to every Canadian with Web access. Approval from a judge is required before Canadian authorities can obtain someone’s personal financial information; why should electronic details be treated differently?

Unfortunately, the federal government’s instincts on law and order have become exaggerated and doctrinaire. Toews’s initial reaction was to meet legitimate concerns with baseless accusations. His now-infamous rejoinder was that critics had a choice to “either stand with us, or with the child predators.” This is in keeping with Toews’s over-the-top approach to crime that dates back to his days as attorney general in Manitoba. As justice minister in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first cabinet, Toews once mused about putting 10-year-olds in jail.

As the current debate lengthened, however, it became apparent Toews was not just being strident. It seemed he’s overlooked the significance of his own bill. This past weekend, under questioning from CBC-TV’s Evan Solomon on warrantless searches, Toews replied, “I’m not familiar with that framing of the issue.” His exchanges during question period contributed to the sense that he’s either unaware or uninterested in the bill’s proposal to do away with warrants.

Unfortunately, some opponents of the bill have been just as misguided in their response. Champions of Internet freedom attempted to link legitimate criticisms of C-30 with embarrassing details from Toews’s private life. One online threat from the group Anonymous, done up in their V for Vendetta style, warns, “We know all about you, Mr. Toews … and we will release what we have unless you scrap the bill and step down as public safety minister.”

So we have a worrisome bill defended by a poorly informed and unnecessarily combative minister who is now being attacked by a rabble of juvenile blackmailers.

Thankfully, there is a measure of good news to be found in all this.

While it’s to be expected that privacy advocates and Internet hotheads would be vocal in attacking the bill, complaints have been heard from some unusual quarters. Rookie backbench Conservative MP John Williamson of New Brunswick, for example, risked his neck last week arguing the bill “is too intrusive as it currently stands and does need to be looked at.” Calgary MP Rob Anders and rural Ontario MP David Tilson also expressed concerns. It seems a brave show of opposition from within the Conservative caucus, particularly given the importance the Harper government places on loyalty and adherence to speaking notes.

Then again, protection of online privacy was once a core Conservative value. As Macleans.ca blogger Jesse Brown has pointed out, former Conservative public safety minister Stockwell Day categorically rejected the notion of warrantless searches when this bill was his responsibility in 2007. And it’s worth noting the bill made its first appearance courtesy of Paul Martin’s Liberal government in 2005. The new Conservative version has reduced by half the personal identifiers police may access, with or without a warrant.

Given the widespread outcry, the Harper government—majority status notwithstanding—now seems to understand there are limits to public acceptance of its tough-on-crime platform. Late last week, Toews made the unusual move of putting his bill up for amendment in the House of Commons at an early stage; he also offered something resembling an apology for his remarks linking critics with child predators.

What needs to happen next? It is certainly not necessary to scrap the entire bill, as some claim. Reasoned observers, including University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, readily admit police surveillance over electronic communications is a necessary tool for fighting crime in our modern era. And there may be exceptional circumstances when time is of the essence. In such situations, Geist recommends an expedited warrant system that still retains judicial oversight. It seems a practical solution.

Despite fears to the contrary, Ottawa has taken notice of public criticism. Backbench MPs are speaking their minds. A political compromise may be in the offing. Canadian democracy, it seems, is still functioning.


As the privacy fight turned ugly, democracy made a comeback

  1. With the bill missing second reading and going directly to committee for further study you can bet there will be changes to the bill. Any attempts by police to obtain information without the necessity of a warrant is unacceptable. There are many instances of police abuse within the RCMP and we need to ensure that Canadians are protected from overly enthusiastic members of law enforcement.

    As for Toews his comments comparing anybody who opposes the bill as being with child pornographers was outrageous. He has dropped the ball on this important piece of legislation and it is time that there was a cabinet shuffle.He doesn’t even appear to know what is in his own bill.

  2. I am reminded of Mulroney`s attempt to deindex the CPP back in 1985, if memory serves.  Although he had a far greater majority than Harper, the backlash was so strong they had to cancel the bill.  It’s obvious now that a majority is not impregnable.  To quote Leonard Cohen: There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.

  3. “Canadian democracy, it seems, is still functioning.”  I actually still believe that, and here is a good example – even though I would suggest most people would have sided with the cops in this particular case.
    “ICBC cannot let police use the provincial insurance company’s facial recognition technology to identify suspected Stanley Cup rioters without a court order, B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner has ruled.
    “A public body can only use personal information for the original purpose it was collected, except in very limited circumstances. ICBC’s offer to use its database to check police-submitted images is clearly a different purpose,” said Denham.
    But Denham said police still have the power to request personal information from ICBC through a warrant or court order.”

  4. Unethical stuff:
    Robocalls; Cotler calls; muzzling of scientists; invasion of internet privacy; In and Out scandal (Finley and Gerstein face jail terms but get off with plea bargain – and Harper appoints Gerstein to Senate!).

    Profligate waste:
    G8/20 (fake lake, gazebos); needless expansion of parliament; shameless stuffing of Senate.

    Dumb stuff:
    Asbestos sales; outrageous crime bill; F-35’s (aerial turkeys).

    most of these in the last few months – and it’s been going on for six years!

    The fact that almost a quarter of our eligible voters would still support these corrupt clowns is a sad testament to our country’s intellectual and moral decline. Thankfully, the alternate media are taking over from the indentured press – and telling it like it really is:

    Don’t miss this:

  5. “So we have a worrisome bill defended by a poorly informed and unnecessarily combative minister who is now being attacked by a rabble of juvenile blackmailers.”

    That’s easily the best one-line summary of this issue I’ve yet seen.

    •  Lol Gaunilon, it is actually a line that could be used in regard to most conservative ‘issues’. Clearly the bill wasn’t anywhere near Toews until he was instructed to submit it, and even then he couldn’t be bothered to actually read it. Now that’s representation at it’s best! It reminds me of short pants george while he was in office south of our border.

      • On the (half) contrary, it’s a line that only applies to half of most conservative ‘issues’.  Namely the “rabble of juvenile blackmailers’ half, which is a near-constant feature in response to conservative politicians.  

        Since you bring up George Bush Jr., one remembers the nicely timed leak of his DUI just before the election against Al Gore, and the similarly timed leak of the National Guard letter just before the election against John Kerry (the latter being, as it turned out, a fake, but still a typical attempt from the rabble of juvenile blackmailers).  

        The part about “poorly informed and unnecessarily combative”, on the other hand, is something I associate with leftists rather than conservatives.  Toews’s performance on this issue has been very disappointing.  He’s acting like Al Gore.

  6. Compare C-30 invasion of privacy with Hitler’s 2-28-33 passed fascist legislation below:

    1933. ROBL. I 83.                                                                          

    GERMANY Preliminary Compilation of Selected Laws,
    Decrees, and Regulations:  





    Note: Based on translations by State Department, National
    Socialism, 1942 PP. 215-17, and Pollak, J.K., and Heneman, H.J., The Hitler
    Decrees, (1934), pp. 10-11.7


    In virtue of Section 48 (2) of the German Constitution,
    the following is decreed as a defensive measure against Communist acts of
    Violence, endangering the state:


    Section 1

    Sections 114, 115, 117, 118,
    123, 124, and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until
    further notice.
    Thus, restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of
    opinion, including freedom of the press, on the right of assembly and the right
    of association, and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic, and
    telephonic communications, and warrants for house-searches, orders for
    confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond
    the legal limits otherwise prescribed.


    Section 2

    If in a state the measures necessary for the restoration of public
    security and order are not taken, the Reich Government may temporarily take
    over the powers of the highest state authority.


    Section 4

    Whoever provokes, or appeals for or incites to the
    disobedience of the orders given out by the supreme state authorities or the
    authorities subject to then for the execution of this decree, or the orders
    given by the Reich Government according to Section 2, is punishable—insofar as
    the deed, is not covered by the decree with more severe punishment and with
    imprisonment of not less that one month, or with a fine from 150 up to 15,000
    Reich marks.


    Who ever endangers human life by violating Section 1, is to
    be punished by sentence to a penitentiary, under mitigating circumstances with
    imprisonment of not less than six months and, when violation causes the death
    of a person, with death, under mitigating circumstances with a penitentiary
    sentence of not less that two years. In addition the sentence my include
    confiscation of property.


    Whoever provokes an inciter to or act contrary to public
    welfare is to be punished with a penitentiary sentence, under mitigating
    circumstances, with imprisonment of not less than three months.


    Section 5

    The crimes which under the Criminal Code are punishable
    with penitentiary for life are to be punished with death: i.e., in Sections 81
    (high treason), 229 (poisoning), 306 (arson), 311 (explosion), 312 (floods),
    315, paragraph 2 (damage to railroad properties, 324 (general poisoning).

    Insofar as a more severe punishment has not been previously
    provided for, the following are punishable with death or with life imprisonment
    or with imprisonment not to exceed 15 years:


    1.        Anyone who undertakes to kill the Reich President or a member or a
    commissioner of the Reich Government or of a state government, or provokes to
    such a killing, or agrees to commit it, or accepts such an offer, or conspires
    with another for such a murder;

    2.            Anyone who under Section 115 (2) of the Criminal Code (serious rioting)
    or of Section 125 (2) of the Criminal Code (serious disturbance of the peace)
    commits the act with arms or cooperates consciously and intentionally with an
    armed person;

    3.            Anyone who commits a kidnapping under Section 239 of the Criminal with
    the intention of making use of the kidnapped person as a hostage in the
    political struggle.

    Section 6


    This decree enters in force on the day of its


    Reich President

    Reich Chancellor

    Reich Minister of the
    Interior                                                                      Reich Minister of Justice

  7. The panic over the “exigent circumstances” provision is so laughable. This is already a caveat to every warrant requirement in the Criminal Code. It is nothing new.

    To compare this legislation to that of the Nazis only shows the incredible ignorance of some commenters.

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