More than eight in 10 Canadians oppose giving government the power to access Internet usage data without a warrant, a fact that may put a crimp in the Conservative government's plans to give police a much freer hand in monitoring the Internet.
A survey released Thursday by the office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada reported that 82 per cent of those polled "opposed giving police and intelligence agencies the power to access e-mail records and other Internet usage data without a warrant from the courts."
The Harper government has said it plans to introduce an omnibus crime bill this fall which is expected to include provisions to greatly expand police power to collect data about web surfers without court oversight.
The 2011 Canadians and Privacy Survey found that not only do a vast majority of Canadians want court-ordered warrants for online surveillance, most (83 per cent) even want their Internet service providers to ask their permission to track any of their online behaviour.
The survey found a Canadian populace that is growing increasingly aware of privacy problems online, and increasingly active in protecting that privacy.
Four in 10 Canadians surveyed said computers and the Internet pose a risk to their privacy, compared to only 26 per cent two years ago.
While Canadians expressed distrust in government on the issue, with only 22 per cent saying they're confident in the government’s handling of data, they showed even less trust towards the private sector, with only 14 per cent saying businesses take their privacy responsibilities seriously.
Under bills C-50, C-51 and C-52, which the Conservatives tabled in the last Parliament and reportedly plan to table again this fall, police would be able to collect emails, phone numbers, addresses and other information about Internet users without a warrant.
Moreover, Internet service providers would be required to retrofit their networks so that law enforcement agencies could monitor Internet activities in real time. And Internet providers could be asked to retain web data on a particular customer.
Critics have called the proposed “lawful access” legislation a threat to civil liberties that would essentially remove judicial oversight from police investigations carried out online.
But there are signs the government may be tempering its approach to the issue. Speaking to The Canadian Press, a government spokeswoman said that while Public Safety Minister Vic Toews “agrees that police should have the ability, with the appropriate legal constraints, to access electronic communication for the purpose of gathering evidence," the government would not support allowing police access to data without a warrant.
The privacy commissioner’s survey was released the same day the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police threw its weight behind the “lawful access” legislation, with police chiefs from across the country passing a resolution to back the government’s legislation.
"Legislation has not been updated since the time of the rotary phone and Canada is among the last of the G8 countries to modernize its laws in this area and make new telecommunication technologies intercept capable," said association president Chief Dale McFee.
With files from The Canadian Press
Canada is not the only Western country working on expanding its control of the Internet. Check out our slideshow of some of the world’s more noteworthy attempts to tame the web:
New Zealand snuck in a three-strikes law against file-sharers as part of an emergency earthquake relief bill. The law, which will see Internet account holders cut off from the web if they receive three copyright violation notices, went into effect last week. Critics have said it violates due process because it doesn't allow the accused to defend themselves. Because the law targets account holders and not actual file-sharers, New Zealand's Green Party says Parliament itself could have its Internet cut off if any of the thousands of people who use the government's Internet use it for illegal downloading. An hour after the law went into effect, a Reddit user claimed to be doing just that.
Australia's federal government has been working on and off on developing a mandatory Internet content filter since 2007. Although the government says it's meant to block child pornography, a list of blocked websites from a 2008 test run of the filter was leaked to Wikileaks. Among the blocked sites were "a Queensland dentist, a tuckshop convener and a kennel operator." Plans for what was known as the Great Firewall of Australia were put on hold in 2009, when the opposition Liberal Party made it impossible for the Labour Party to pass the legislation through the Senate. But a government strategy paper (PDF) suggests the idea could be back in front of legislators in 2013.
Canada's Conservative government introduced "lawful access" legislation in February, 2012, that critics say will severely undermine court oversight of police investigations and harm online privacy. The government plans to force ISPs to hand over subscriber data at the request of police, and without a warrant. Critics say the law will give the government "a free hand in spying on the private lives of law-abiding Canadians." The legislation was effectively put on hold when a public backlash turned out to be more than the government had expected. It will now likely be largely re-written before returning to Parliament.
At the behest of President Nicolas Sarkozy, France passed a three-strikes law against file-sharers in 2009, and, like the similar law in New Zealand, it has been criticized for passing judgment without proper judicial processes, and relying on copyright holders to determine who will lose Internet access. Last month France announced the first batch of Internet surfers to be disconnected from the web after receiving three copyright violation notices. But the law seems to have turned the alleged file-sharing copyright infringers into heroes, with the media reporting that one of the disconnected is a 54-year-old teacher who says he has no idea how to illegally file-share, and believes his wi-fi router was hacked into. So far, under the HADOPI law, as it is known, 18 million French residents have received notices of copyright violations.
Websites such as Wikipedia and Reddit went dark in mid-January, 2012, in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill that would allow the government to force Internet service providers to cut off websites deemed to have violated copyright laws. The House bill, and its Senate version, the Protect IP Act (PIPA), are seen by critics as a blatant attempt at censorship, who have compared it to Chinese and Iranian Internet firewalls. With the proposed laws inspiring such impassioned protests across the Internet, signs are emerging that its backers may be getting cold feet. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who introduced the Senate version of the bill, appears to have backed away from the part of the bill that would authorize the U.S. attorney general to block access to websites.