When the government placed the Internet surveillance bill on the notice paper one week ago, few would have predicted that within days of the introduction, the anger with the legislative proposals would have been so strong that the government would steadily backtrack on its plans, with Public Safety Minister Vic Toews yesterday telling the House of Commons the bill will go to committee before second reading to ensure that there is greater openness to amendments (changes are more restricted after second reading). While the battle is only beginning, the overwhelming negative reaction seems to have taken the government by surprise.
There are undoubtedly many factors that led to the early successful fight against the bill. Toews’ outrageous comments on siding with child pornographers the day before the bill was even introduced placed the government on the defensive from the outset. The substance of the bill is genuinely bad as there is no need for hyperbole to explain the privacy threats that come from mandatory disclosure of personal information without court oversight. This is an issue that resonates with both sides of the political spectrum with criticism from Conservative MPs and supporters particularly telling.
Yet this time I think there is something more happening. Government ministers often make ill-advised comments, yet few sink support for legislation so quickly. Privacy is a major concern, but it rarely generates this level of interest (the Privacy Act has not been amended in over 30 years despite repeated efforts to do so and there are no protests over the delayed Bill C-12, the privacy reform bill, languishing in the House). There has been conservative criticism of other government initiatives, but it rarely generates such a quick reaction.
The “something more” is the Internet and how over the past month it has emerged as a powerful political force in North America and Europe.
The emphasis to date has been on copyright, but it is about more than just copyright. From the SOPA protests in the United States that successfully stopped dangerous legislation to the anti-ACTA protests in Europe that led tens of thousands to take to the streets to the Canadian fight against Bill C-11’s digital lock rules and potential incorporation of SOPA-style amendments, Internet users are reacting to efforts to impose restrictions on privacy, free speech, and consumer rights by fighting back.
Yesterday’s Twitter-based #tellviceverything was the perfect illustration for how the Internet can fuel awareness and action at remarkable speed. Through thousands of tweets, Canadians used humour to send a strong message that the government has overstepped with Bill C-30 (my favourite remains @kevinharding’s Hey @ToewsVic, I lost an email from my work account yesterday. Can I get your copy?). Alongside the Twitter activity are dedicated websites, hundreds of blog postings from commentators on the left and right of the political spectrum, thousands of calls and letters to MPs, and nearly 100,000 signatures on the Stop Spying petition at Open Media.
The numbers are also big on the copyright front in Canada. Nearly 50,000 have signed the No Internet Lockdown petition focused on copyright reform and more than that number have sent emails to MPs opposing the current digital lock rules in Bill C-11. Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore may defend the bill as rejecting American style approaches, but in light of the DMCA-like provisions on digital locks, those claims are no more credible that Toews’ assertions about lawful access.
Politicians and political parties have been anxious to tap the Internet as a funding source and as a platform to disseminate their message. Many have been slow to recognize that it is a two-way conversation, however. In recent weeks, Internet users – who are now the overwhelming majority of Canadians – have found their voice. It is informed, funny, and loud. As I wrote last week in the context of copyright, can you hear us now?