Opposition MPs questioned wide-ranging changes included in Justice Minister Peter MacKay's cyberbullying legislation Thursday as the House started its committee review of the bill.

Legal experts have already raised concerns about why a piece of legislation that is meant to rein in online tormentors is also taking on terror suspects and people who steal cable TV signals.

Among other things, the new measures in Bill C-13 include giving police easier access to the metadata that internet service providers and phone companies keep on every call and email.

MacKay's appearance came a day after MPs reacted to news that federal enforcement agencies make about 1.2 million requests for personal information from telecommunications providers every year. Those numbers are from the nine of 30 service providers in Canada that responded to questions from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner in 2011.

MacKay suggested to MPs on the justice committee that federal privacy rules — the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) — will continue to help safeguard Canadians' information.

He allowed that the legislation would formalize protection for telecoms that co-operate with law enforcement by giving information to them upon request.

"If it is lawful, then they should be immune from prosecution," MacKay said. "This bill does not create any new protection from any criminal or civil liability for anyone who would voluntarily assist law enforcement. It simply clarifies existing provisions."

Anyone can get information

But Liberal justice critic Sean Casey tied MacKay's cybercrime bill to a government bill before the Senate, S-4, that he says will let the government broaden that protection.

"S-4 will allow for anyone who’s investigating any breach of contract from any organization, whether it’s private, public, government or not, to avail themselves of that power," Casey said, 

MacKay disagreed, citing the existing law that S-4, known as the digital privacy act, would change.

"There are repeated references to lawful authority," he said. "It has to be done in compliance with the criminal law."

Having two bills at the same time dealing with privacy and service providers, however, made the discuss complicated.

"I’m not here to discuss S-4 and even if I was, we don’t have that legislation in front of us here. I’m not going to get into the provisions of a bill that we’re not here to discuss," MacKay said.

Changing burden of proof

NDP justice critic Françoise Boivin questioned MacKay on changing the burden of proof needed by police by using the term "grounds to suspect" rather than "grounds to believe" in the legislation.

"Here we’re introducing new concepts. Have these concepts been tested before you proposed them in Bill C-13? Which is going to have a lot of ramifications outside of cyberbullying and beyond the distribution of images because your bill is quite wide-ranging," she said.

MacKay says the concept of reasonable grounds to suspect has been accepted by the courts.

"It has been tested by the court, its constitutionality has been accepted and for low-level privacy matters, I would suggest it has become the standard," he said. 

MacKay told reporters on his way out that the government is "giving police the necessary tools to go out and investigate online crime."

"And so in order to effectively police the internet, which is what C-13 attempts to do, we believe these provisions are consistent with existing law, consistent with modernization efforts that have already occurred, and consistent with all of our G7 allies who have moved in this direction," he said.

Steve Anderson, the head of Open Media, which advocates for open internet policies, referred to news this week that the telecoms are already co-operating with federal agencies in handing over personal information.

The new bill, he told CBC News, "would give the telecom companies immunity for handing over our data without a warrant. So it wouldn’t mandate that they have to, but we already know that they are."

"It shields the telecom companies from getting sued. So if they are already handing it over, then there’s just going to be much more of that because they’re going to be shielded from legal recourse," Anderson said.

With files from Andre Mayer