Online surveillance bill could change, Harper signals

The government says it's open to amending its bill that would give police and intelligence agencies new powers to access Canadians' electronic communications and get telecommunications subscriber data.

Proposed legislation has renewed debate on privacy and security issues

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking in the House of Commons Wednesday, indicated his government is willing to consider amendments to its online surveillance bill. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicated Wednesday that his government is willing to amend the bill it introduced a day earlier that gives police new powers to access information on Canadians' telecommunications and Internet use.

The bill, dubbed "the protecting children from internet predators act," immediately renewed controversy around privacy rights and security issues. Similar bills on what is commonly called lawful access legislation have been introduced in previous Parliaments by both Conservatives and Liberals but weren't passed before the most recent election last May.

Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel said in question period that the government is trying to give itself the right to snoop on Canadians.

"We've been very clear; we're working with provinces and police to attack problems of online pornography, child pornography. But of course we will ensure that Parliament fully studies this bill and that private life is also protected in this regard," Harper said.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who introduced the bill and said it is focused on protecting children, was clearer when he was asked specifically if the government would be open to amendments.

"The prime minister indicated that that would in fact be the case — that we will entertain amendments," said Toews. "But I think that the amendments have to be focused on the fact that we have a problem in respect of the proliferation of pedophilia and child pornography online. We want our laws fixed while striking the right balance when it comes to protecting privacy."

The bill includes no mention of children or predators except in the short title of it.

Among the bill's measures is a requirement for telecommunications service providers to provide basic subscriber information to police and intelligence agencies when they ask for it and without a warrant. The information could include a person's name, address, phone number, email address, IP address and the name of their service provider.

Currently this information may be given by service providers on a voluntary basis, but they aren't compelled to hand it over.

The bill includes other measures related to the disclosure of information and warrants and also changes the definition of hate propaganda to include communication targeting sex, age and gender.

No free access to information says Toews

Toews said a warrant is needed by police in order to get "intrusive evidence" such as emails or web surfing activity and that accountability mechanisms are built into the proposed legislation.

"There is no free access to information by police," he said.

Toews continued to draw criticism Wednesday for comments he made earlier in the week about the bill. In response to a question about the impending bill from a Liberal MP, Toews said the evolution of technology has made it easier to distribute child pornography and that the Conservatives are updating laws to give police the tools they need to fight it.

"He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers," Toews said during question period on Monday in response to Francis Scarpaleggia.

On Wednesday, NDP MP Charlie Angus accused Toews of "using child victims as political cover."

Toews dismissed the accusation by saying the NDP never stands up for victims.

"We will send this legislation directly to committee for a full and wide-ranging examination of the best way to do what is right for our children," the public safety minister said.

Angus, following question period, said the NDP is on side with Canada's privacy commissioner, who has expressed concerns about the bill.

"We're going to continue hammering this bill because this bill is attacking some fundamental freedoms of Canadians," he said. 


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multiplatform reporter with CBC News in Toronto. She joined the CBC in 2011 and previously worked in the Parliament Hill and Washington bureaus. She has also reported for the CBC from Hong Kong. Meagan started her career as a print reporter in Ottawa.