Last week, many Canadians ended their Valentine’s Day startled by the news that Vic Toews had a long-term affair with his children’s babysitter, and spent $500 at Winnipeg’s Original Pancake House. These private revelations about the Minister of Public Safety came via the anonymous Twitter feed @vikileaks30. The account has since been shut down, but not before fulfilling its purpose: focusing attention on a Conservative push for the enactment of Bill C-30, which will ease restrictions on internet surveillance. The Vikileaks incident tailgated Toews’ remarks — directed toward the Liberal MP who’d invoked 1984 in his challenge to the bill — that “he can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.”
Bravo to us for finally listening to what’s happening around our telecommunications usage and rights. Bill C-30’s most disquieting element is that it would force internet service providers like Rogers and Bell to hand over subscriber information to authorities whenever requested, without a warrant. Such forfeitures would include IP addresses, which can be used to trace many online activities. But wait: of the tens of thousands of information requests that the RCMP sent to telecom service providers throughout 2010, the TSPs complied with 94 percent of them. Bill C-30, despite the size and thickness of its blanket, would be required for only the remaining 6 percent of cases in which authorities need a warrant to compel disclosure. It’s unclear why the Conservative Party insists on chasing this bill. Worrying is the wide range of implications that a fully warrant-less surveillance system would allow, from the fact that it would become easy (and, many of us fear, customary) for law enforcement agents to do extensive internet usage background checks on anyone, at anytime, to the fact that people under surveillance may never know and their ISPs may be forbidden to tell them.
Stephen Harper’s Tories have a long record of framing internet privacy in extremist ways. (Here’s a supporting quote from our Prime Minister, and two more from Toews here and here.) From its first printing, the language around C-30 has focused on the dichotomy that Toews so bluntly vocalized: either you support the “Protecting Children From Internet Predators Act” (the bill’s original short title), or you support internet predators. It now feels of minor consequence, following last week’s mass outcry, that the bill’s short title has been changed to the “Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act.”
It took the Tories’ extremist rhetoric and a creative, aggressive protest via Twitter to spotlight the perils of Bill C-30. However, lacking such amplifiers, many Canadians continue to ignore other current and potentially more dangerous measures. Public concern on Bill C-11, now being reviewed in Parliament, is a whisper. If passed, C-11 will supersede most user rights in Canada’s existing Copyright Act and import US DMCA–style digital locks against copying — or even tinkering with – lawfully purchased material. Since most corporate-owned media have digital locks, you’d be criminalized for copying your old DVDs to your iPad, while libraries would be limited in reproducing material for public access. DMCA rules in the States have already “chilled” free expression and even promoted monopolization among media corporations. The US is pressuring us to adopt similar measures by placing Canada on a “watch list” for our supposedly weak intellectual property rights.
There’s more. Valentine’s Day was also the final opportunity for public consultation submissions on Canada’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP aims to extend copyright from the current standard, an author’s lifetime plus fifty years, to life plus seventy years. Beloved Canadian writers like Marshall McLuhan and Gwethalyn Graham, as well as internationals like Aldous Huxley, would be kept out of our public domain for an additional twenty years. The TPP also enforces stricter punishments for digital lock circumspection than Bill C-11, blurs the line between commercial and non-commercial copyright infringement, and contains stricter patent infringement penalties. According to Michael Geist, legal scholar at the University of Ottawa and esteemed intellectual property rights analyst, “The TPP would require a massive overhaul of Canadian intellectual property law, far beyond that envisioned by either Bill C-11 or even the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement” — the latter being yet another multinational initiative that we the Canadian public have largely ignored. In fact, the TPP’s wide-reaching net would imply a new free trade agreement with the US, as well as surrendering some Canadian sovereignty over copyright and patent law.
Strong internet-based opposition to attempts to restrict new media use is limping towards becoming the norm. Canada’s anti–C-30 battle cry is an echo of the anti-SOPA/PIPA war that US internet users appear to be winning, as well as the anti-ACTA protests now streaking across Europe. One year earlier, the government of Egypt’s internet shutdown reinforced protesters’ resolve by providing an immediate example of what they were fighting against.
But when it comes to telecommunications legislation in Canada, we usually don’t care. And why should we? Our speech freedoms are great. Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index ranks us tenth globally, tied with Denmark and a point ahead of Sweden. Geist himself says that our “Privacy Act has not been amended in over 30 years despite repeated efforts to do so.” Bill C-30 likely swelled in our collective conscience because of its particularly poor handling by the Conservative Party. Had the bill not been subtitled as it was, and had Toews made more careful comments on the House floor, it likely would not have aroused our attention, and likely would have quietly passed on to the next stage. In our lethargy, important things like the TPP can whiz by — and we only notice years later when we examine history to see where it all went wrong.
Alina Konevski is an online editorial intern at The Walrus.