Telecom companies would be granted immunity for handing over information on their customers without a warrant under a law meant to target cyberbullying, civil liberties groups say.
OpenMedia is leading a coalition of organizations that are lining up against Bill C-13, which the Harper government tabled last fall in response to a series of high-profile cyberbullying cases.
Digital law experts and civil liberties groups say the law goes far beyond targeting online bullying, and essentially revives many of the elements of a controversial earlier online spying bill.
The Tories pulled the plug on that proposed law in 2012 after then-Public Safety Minister Vic Toews caused controversy by asserting that opponents of the bill are siding "with child pornographers.”
The new proposed law, Bill C-13 or the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, “will allow authorities access to the private lives of millions of law-abiding Canadians, even if they’re not suspected of wrong-doing,” OpenMedia said in a statement released Wednesday.
“Bill C-13 would let those authorities create detailed profiles of Canadians based on who they talk to and what they say and do online. The legislation also provides immunity to telecom providers who hand over the private information of Canadians without a warrant,” the group said.
University of Ottawa digital law professor Michael Geist wrote last November that the proposed law would essentially allow authorities to request data on any telecom subscriber, regardless of whether the request is in connection to the investigation of a crime.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay says the bill will not erode internet privacy rights, and telecom companies will only be granted immunity if their disclosure of subscriber data complies with the law.
But Geist and others have accused MacKay of misleading the public by suggesting these disclosures would always involve a warrant, which is not the case. Telecom companies already have the right under the law to disclose subscriber data to authorities without a warrant.
Critics have charged the government with creating a legislative “Trojan horse” by tacking on these new provisions to a bill ostensibly meant to protect against cyberbullying.
“They’re bringing through the back door what they couldn’t get through the front door,” OpenMedia executive director Steve Anderson told Huffington Post Canada.
Anderson said the Harper government has been “more successful with the branding” of this bill, thanks to its use of the cyberbullying issue as a way to frame the bill.
He said his organization is not opposed to the cyberbullying elements of the bill, and said he could support the NDP’s proposal to split off that part of the bill from the rest. That part of the bill would make it illegal to distribute "intimate images" without the consent of the person in the images.
But the parts of the bill dealing with access to subscriber information “need to be fixed,” Anderson said.
Anderson noted that law enforcement groups such as the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police have been lobbying heavily for the bill.
The telecom immunity provisions are similar to those introduced in the U.S., where civil liberties groups attempted to sue telecom companies for eavesdropping on subscribers without a warrant in the years after 9/11.
The 2008 FISA Amendments Act provided immunity to telecoms from such lawsuits. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in 2012.
Since then, a series of documents from the NSA, leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, have indicated that warrantless online surveillance by governments may be far more extensive than previously thought.
Leaked documents from Snowden illustrated that Canada has helped allied countries to carry out warrantless surveillance. The documents also indicated Canada’s electronic spying agency, CSEC, collected data from Canadians’ computers at an airport WiFi hotspot, though a federal watchdog later said Canadians were not tracked during that experiment.
Many anti-cyberbullying activists have hailed the legislation. Carol Todd, mother of cyberbullying victim Amanda Todd, wrote in a blog at HuffPost Canada last year that the bill would have saved her daughter's life.
MacKay has said the government would like to see the bill pass into law this spring.