The government’s controversial Bill C-30, which would give police and security agents new surveillance powers over the internet and compel web service providers to assist them, could also lead to a “massive internet sweep” on thousands of political and social activists, warns a leading human rights lawyer.
The scenario is likely if the proposed Bill C-30, which the government has emphasized as legislation to protect children from internet predators, passes through Parliament and its new powers are used in conjunction with a new government counter-terrorism strategy released less than a week before Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (Provencher, Man.) introduced the internet surveillance bill in the Commons, Ottawa lawyer Paul Champ, a director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Union, told The Hill Times on Wednesday.
The impact Bill C-30, which has so far received first reading the Commons, could have on internet users as well as their internet service providers took backstage last week in a furor Mr. Toews sparked when he challenged Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia (Lac Saint Louis, Que.) to “either stand with us or with the child pornographers.”
At the time, in the Monday, Feb. 13 Commons Question Period the day before Mr. Toews tabled the legislation, Mr. Scarpaleggia was questioning whether the government could be trusted not to use the provisions of the bill to spy on Canadians protesting oil pipelines or other issues, following Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s (Eglinton-Lawrence, Ont.) claim that foreign-financed radicals were behind opposition to the massive Northern Gateway oil pipeline in B.C.
Although the government gave Bill C-30 the short title of Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act, the legislation covers investigations into suspected organized crime activity, terrorism and other Criminal Code offences.
In a lengthy interview with The Hill Times about the implications of Bill C-30, along with the government’s new counter-terrorism strategy and definitions of terrorist activity in the Criminal Code, Mr. Champ expressed the same reservations that prompted Mr. Toews to suggest Mr. Scarpaleggia was siding with child predators.
The concern centres on a provision in Bill C-30 that reduces the threshold of an existing Criminal Code provision allowing police to intercept private communications without a judge’s warrant “in exceptional circumstances,” along with the power Mr. Toews and successive federal Public Safety ministers will have to force cooperation from internet service providers, including fines up to $100,000 for individuals and $500,000 to service providers who refuse to set up the surveillance and interception equipment the bill requires to hand over intercepted communications to the RCMP, provincial and city police forces, or the Canadian Security Intelligence Agency.
Furthermore, the RCMP and the head of CSIS will have the power to designate agents with the authority to collect, without a judicial warrant, the names, addresses and telephone numbers of any internet service provider’s subscribers, along with their internet protocol addresses, the key to tracking down and hacking computers over the internet.
Also at the centre of Mr. Champ’s concerns—as well as those expressed at the outset of the controversy by opposition MPs and civil liberties advocates—is the counter-terrorism strategy Mr. Toews unveiled only five days before he tabled the internet surveillance bill.
In the middle of its treatment of terrorism and related threats, the strategy includes a section on “Domestic Issue-based Extremism,” and says “low-level violence by domestic issued-based groups remains a reality in Canada. Such extremism tends to be based on grievances—real or perceived—revolving around the promotion of various causes such as animal rights, white supremacy, environmentalism and anti-capitalism.”
“Although very small in number, some groups in Canada have moved beyond lawful protest to encourage, threaten and support acts of violence,” the strategy statement says.
Existing Criminal Code definitions of terrorist activity include acts that are committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” with the intention of intimidating the public’s sense of security, and which intentionally cause death or substantial damage to public or private property.
Mr. Champ said he recalled the massive government security build-up for the summit of G20 government leaders in Toronto in 2010, which ended with the detention of more than 1,100 protesters. There were widely-published images of pockets of hooded or masked “Black Bloc” demonstrators smashing store windows and torching police cars, but most of the protesters who were detained were later released without being charged.
Mr. Champ said Bill C-30 would give sweeping new powers to police and security agencies to monitor legitimate protesters prior to similar events in the future. Environmental activists protesting pipelines or other projects, including the Northern Gateway pipeline and another proposed oil sands pipeline extension into the U.S., could also be subject to broad surveillance.
One thing I have been saying for a long time is that we need to be very careful about these extensions of state powers in response to terrorism,” Mr. Champ said. “When I saw that anti-terrorism strategy statement, that was the first thing I thought of, that’s where all this stuff is going to go, it’s going to start applying to all kinds of groups.”
Mr. Champ said police and security agents could first use the powers of the bill to begin surveillance on particular web sites to start “scooping up” Internet addresses that would lead them to activists they want to monitor.
“Who is going to define what is legitimate political protest?” he said. “History tells us that people in security intelligence with the government are very poorly equipped to draw that distinction. The second thing is, they are going to do this massive Internet sweep capturing tens of thousands of Canadians who are engaging in legitimate political activity, to determine whether it is legitimate or not.”
However, Canada’s police chiefs came out Monday to defend the government’s proposed internet surveillance bill and said during a Vancouver news conference on Feb. 20 that the public should not fear the bill because the cops are not interested in monitoring the communication of Canadians who aren’t committing crimes.
“We’re talking about serious criminal offences,” said Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association. “Even if the police wanted, in some pervasive way, to monitor phones, ISPs [of the public], we don’t have the capacity. This is legislation that’s designed to give the police the tools to better deal with serious organized crime.”
The government has said it will consider amendments the legislation after receiving considerable backlash.
But a number of opposition MPs said they agreed the stage may be set for a significant increase in police and CSIS powers to mount intelligence surveillance on a range of protest movements.
“It would be easy for the police to track cellphone communications, cellphone numbers, it might be easy to track people who are protesting democratically, and in fact my question to Toews on that first day was whether it would make it easier for the government to track people who are freely and peacefully expressing their democratic voice,” said Mr. Scarpaleggia. “It’s a question that needs to be answered.”
NDP MP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay, Ont.) said the bill will give Canada’s public safety minister too much power.
“It comes down to an issue of trust, does anybody trust that Vic Toews, with the amount of power that he’s trying to amalgamate into his office, is going to look out for the privacy rights of average Canadians?” said Mr. Angus
Mr. Toews was subject to an embarrassing Vikileaks Twitter revelation of his own private divorce proceedings as part of the backlash against the legislation, and has asked Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) to investigate allegations the attack came from a computer location in Parliament.
“When you have a government that refers to people who go to protest as radical extremists, either they think that word doesn’t mean anything or radical extremists are people that you have to keep an eye on,” Mr. Angus told The Hill Times.
“In this bill, enormous power is being put into this bill so that the minister gets to decide, not judges, not independent bodies, but the minister gets to decide,” Mr. Angus said.
But Mr. Toews has said publicly and repeatedly that the bill includes judicial control over most of the surveillance powers, and told the CBC’s Evan Solomon in an appearance broadcast on CBC Radio’s The House last Saturday: “I want to be very clear, the police will not be able to read emails or view web activity unless they obtain a warrant issued by a judge.”
“If there is anything in the bill that deviates from that very important principle that substantive content cannot be accessed without a warrant, I’m certainly prepared to consider amendments, as is the Prime Minister,” Mr. Toews said.
Mr. Toews has said repeatedly that the present legislation allows child pornography and organized crime to flourish on the internet, that the new legislation will help fight that, and that critics of the legislation haven’t read Bill C-30.
“Unless this legislation is adopted, this will in fact allow child pornographers and organized crime to flourish,” Mr. Toews said.
Meanwhile, in an email from Mr. Toews’ communications director about whether the government’s new counter-terrorism strategy means protesters and activists could be put under wider surveillance through the provisions of Bill C-30, Michael Patton said, "The only identifiable group that our legislation targets are those who break the law."