Online spying Bill C-13 re-introduced

Isn’t it long past time for an Internet bill of rights?

It was a decision made on June 13, nearly four months ago, that set an im­portant precedent for online privacy in Canada. In the Supreme Court of Canada case R. v. Spencer, it was af­firmed that Canadians have the right to online anonymity and that police can­not request subscriber data from service providers without a warrant.

The decision was welcomed by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and lauded by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Three days after the ruling, service providers Telus and Rogers even announced that they would no longer hand over subscriber data without a warrant. Everyone seemed to hear the Supreme Court of Canada loud and clear.

Everyone except for the government, it seems.

Bill C-13, a controversial online spying bill that would grant those same service providers immunity when providing subscriber data, was up for a (very brief) debate in the House of Commons on Oct. 1. It was voted on and passed and has moved on in its process towards becoming law.

Minister of Justice Peter MacKay, who presented and defended the bill, insisted that it did not infringe on the SCC’s decision in R. v. Spencer. There are few who agree, or at least, few who see the point in the bill going forward.

Michael Geist, who holds the Can­ada Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, called this a “head in the sand” approach by the government.

“While it is true that the voluntary warrantless disclosure provision does not directly contradict the Spencer decision, the reality is that it has been rendered largely moot. In other words, the government is touting a legislative solution to assist law enforcement that the police will not use and that telecom companies will ignore,” Geist wrote on his blog.

In response to the bill, the digital rights group OpenMedia is running ads in Peter MacKay’s home riding in Nova Scotia, hoping to rile up his constituents on the matter.

Even if the bill does become law, won’t its overturning at the inevitable SCC challenge just further reaffirm what we already know? Why are we wasting time?

Perhaps this bill represents a prob­lem with all attempts to wrangle the woes of technology. In a broad sense, isn’t this bill overly specific? Will its specifics apply to how we dispense services in the future?

The Internet has been in most peo­ples’ hands for at least 20 years now, and clearly we are still novices when it comes to legislating its usage. There seems to be little we can do that does not overreach.

The Charter of Rights and Free­doms has been instrumental in pre­venting the kind of “working back­wards” technique we’re seeing with this bill and R. v. Spencer. Instead of using a single court case as prece­dent, why don’t we give ourselves the opportunity to work with something much more elaborate, like an Internet bill of rights?

Something as foundational as an Internet (or more broadly, digital) bill of rights would allow us to decide on and enshrine what’s really important to us. If three quarters of Canadians are against further online spying, as a Forum Research poll reported by OpenMedia would suggest, what kind of support could there be for a much broader resolution?