Canada backs internet 'direct democracy' abroad, but faces questions at home

The federal government is throwing its support behind a "digital public square" project launched by the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto to promote democracy through the internet, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced Tuesday. But Canada isn't immune to criticism over internet freedom.

Freedom House report rates Canada highly on internet freedom, but warns of recent 'regressive steps'

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is concerned about the growing attempts of governments around the world to control the internet. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada wants to help undermine repressive regimes using the power of the web, says Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who announced Tuesday his government is throwing its support behind a "digital public square" project launched by the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Baird said it's Canada's latest foray into the field of "direct diplomacy," a strategy to bypass repressive regimes and reach out directly to people in countries that do not allow free debate. The immediate target of the Munk School project is Iran, a country that bans access to popular social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The effort makes available technologies that allow people to circumvent government firewalls, communicate anonymously and escape government censorship. Some of those technologies are already in wide use in Iran, where a large segment of society is educated, tech-savvy and resents the government's restraints on the internet.

Ultimately, both the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Munk school hope to expand the project to other countries.

In announcing the joint project, Baird lamented the growing attempts of governments around the world to control the internet.

"Last year, Freedom House found that two-thirds of the countries that they studied proposed legislation, legislation to clamp down on legitimate speech online, or to increase government powers to control content. Most countries were getting worse, not better," Baird said.

Canada taken to task

But he failed to mention that one of the countries taken to task by Freedom House, an independent democracy watchdog, is Canada.

"Canada has, in recent years, taken some regressive steps, driven by court decisions that weakened confidentiality for journalists' sources, and the introduction of several bills that could have negative implications for the protection of internet users' data," a report by the Washington-based NGO says.

The report, titled Freedom on the Net, studied 65 countries between May 2013 and May 2014. It found 41 of them were on a negative trajectory in terms of internet freedom.

The report did note that Canada has strong protections for freedom of speech, and ranked it higher than the U.S. in terms of internet freedom. Only Iceland and Estonia achieved better overall scores.

But "despite these strengths, there remains considerable unease among many Canadians with respect to online rights," said the report.

"Proposed legislative reforms, including the Digital Privacy Act (Bill S-4) and the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act (Bill C-13, also known as the cyberbullying bill), have generated concern among many Canadians with regard to potentially negative provisions included within the bills, such as plans to expand the scope of voluntary disclosures of personal information without court oversight.

"Additionally, Canada's role in global surveillance activities was revealed over the past year through the [U.S.] National Security Agency documents leaked by Edward Snowden, causing many to question the sufficiency of surveillance oversight in Canada," the report said.

'Good intentions'

Freedom House analyst Laura Reed says Bill C-13 is similar other laws proposed around the world where public pressure has mounted to protect internet users from gross breaches of privacy and dignity, such as the posting of nude images of a person without their consent.

"Sometimes these laws come out of good intentions, but they end up as something else that may infringe on the rights of internet users, or get mixed up with other issues around surveillance and security," Reed said.

"You should never judge a law based on what the government that drafts it says it's for," said Calgary lawyer Derek From of the Canadian Constitution Foundation. "Legislation takes on a life of its own."

"There seems to be a one-way street with these changes. In all of them, the government is grasping for our freedoms, and once they're gone, we never get them back."

Critics of C-13, which is now law, say it has made it much easier for Canadian law enforcement to obtain information about internet users without obtaining a warrant. Bill S-4, which has already passed the Senate, will make it easier for corporations and organizations to share information about Canadians between themselves, without informing those whose data has been disclosed.

The past year has been "enormously damaging" to freedom and privacy on the internet, said Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair on internet law at the University of Ottawa.

"The revelations from Snowden, which were all about warrantless disclosure, and then C-13, which was about the same thing, and now S-4. The one good piece of news in the last year is the ruling from the Supreme Court on cellphones," Geist said.

In the R. v. Spencer case in June, the court ruled that Canadians have the right to be anonymous on the internet, and that telecommunications companies can no longer simply hand over information about their customers to law enforcement without a warrant.

That ruling is widely expected to be used to challenge both the cyberbullying law and the proposed Digital Privacy Act, if and when it passes.