Cyberbullying bill won't be split in 2, Peter MacKay says

Justice Minister Peter MacKay says the federal government will not split its cyberbullying bill in two, in effect rejecting the advice of a growing list of independent experts and opposition critics who have urged the government to do so.

Canadian Bar Association to recommend that Ottawa split the bill in 2 parts

Justice Minister Peter MacKay defended the government's cyberbullying bill on Monday during a debate over an NDP motion to split the controversial bill in two. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Conservatives will not heed the advice of a growing list of independent experts and opposition critics who are urging the federal government to split its cyberbullying bill in two, by hiving off into a separate piece of legislation the more controversial provisions of the bill.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay made it clear on Monday the government will move to pass Bill C-13 as one bill, not two.

"To separate the bill Mr. Speaker, I would suggest would be perverse," MacKay said in the House of Commons during a debate over an NDP motion to split the controversial bill.

Bill C-13 would protect young people from online bullying by making it illegal to post or transmit an "intimate image" of another individual without that person’s consent. But it's the provisions that have to do with bringing police search and seizure powers up to date with current technology that have raised serious privacy concerns.

MacKay defended the bill by repeating the government's assertion that surveillance-related provisions included in the bill are needed to update and strengthen the Criminal Code.

"It would be an empty vessel, it would be a shell of a bill, if we don't modernize those provisions of the Criminal Code that allow law enforcement to do their important work," he said.

Bill touches on terrorism, fraud

MacKay conceded that Bill C-13 would do more than simply create a new offence in the Criminal Code.

"It pertains, yes, to more than just this new provision of the Criminal Code. It pertains to acts of terrorism, it pertains to acts of fraud, all of which … can occur online." 

NDP justice critic Françoise Boivin said the bill contains useful provisions to combat cyberbullying, but it also includes measures that pose a threat to privacy.

"Parliamentarians will have failed in their mission to fight cyberbullying if C-13 faces a successful court challenge over privacy concerns," Boivin said.

MacKay said it was "contradictory" for the New Democrats to suggest that the government pass the cyberbullying provisions without giving the police the powers to enforce them. The minister made it clear he is of the view that the two go hand in hand.

The justice minister added that court challenges would not deter the government from pursuing its agenda.

"As sure as night follows day, there will be challenges in the court," MacKay said.

"Are we to be reticent to pass laws because a lawyer, or an interest group, or an individual may decide to launch a charter challenge? I would respectfully submit that that would be irresponsible."

Liberal MP Scott Simms said that although the Liberals are supportive "in principle" of measures that will provide law enforcement officials with more tools to combat cyberbullying, Bill C-13 is too wide in its current scope.

"This omnibus bill touches everything from terrorism to telemarketing, cable stealing to hate speech, and is an affront to both democracy and the legislative process."

Simms said the Liberals supported the NDP motion to split the bill but made further amendments to the motion.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who also supported the NDP motion, asked MacKay if he would reconsider his position.

MacKay adjourned the debate just over an hour after it started.

Split the bill

On Tuesday, the Canadian Bar Association will also recommend the federal government divide Bill C-13 into "two distinct bills" when it appears before the Commons justice committee that is studying the legislation.

The Bar Association said, in a 25-page submission to the justice committee that was made public today, that it "supports the intention underlying both aspects of the bill: protecting young people from online bullying and bringing police search and seizure powers up to date with current technology."

The group also noted the lawful access provisions in Bill C-13 were "more focused" than those found in previous incarnations of the bill.

Last week, B.C.'s privacy watchdog Elizabeth Denham also called on the federal government to separate the provisions that directly address cyberbullying from those that extend law enforcement powers.

"Any proposed increase to those powers must be critically examined and vigorously debated," Denham said.

That same day, former public safety minister Stockwell Day said he hoped the government would take "another look" at the bill and curtail some of the powers it would give to police.

A day earlier, Ontario privacy watchdog Ann Cavoukian urged the government to split its bill in two, warning that "overreaching surveillance powers" contained in the bill would entrench in law some of the warrantless practices already used by police.

Cavoukian echoed concerns expressed by Carol Toddwhose daughter Amanda killed herself after being bullied online. "We should not have to sacrifice our children's privacy rights to make them safe from cyberbullying," Todd told the justice committee.

A second government bill currently being reviewed by Parliament has also elicited serious concerns about potential privacy breaches.

"Even as Bill C-13 proposes to entrench broad immunity for permissive private sector disclosures, Bill S-4, the digital privacy act, proposes to allow more warrantless disclosure of personal information by the private sector," Cavoukian told CBC News last week.