Public Safety Shuffle Could Allow for an Internet Surveillance Restart

Sometime in the next few weeks, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is expected to be appointed to the Manitoba Court of Appeal. The Toews appointment is among the worst kept secrets in Ottawa, with the move causing a domino effect that will lead to a new minister and an opportunity for a fresh start on Internet surveillance legislation, one of the government’s biggest political blunders to date.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that Toews infamously introduced the Internet surveillance bill, often referred to as lawful access, by stating that critics of the bill could either stand with the government or with child pornographers. The comments sparked outrage from across the political spectrum as Canadians questioned the need for the legislation, the lack of privacy safeguards, and the divisive communications strategy.

Within days, the bill was dead in the water, stuck in political limbo with the government unwilling to place it on the House of Commons agenda to allow for a few hours of debate so it could be sent to committee for further study. The bill remained stuck at first reading for months, one of the few government bills to effectively die after introduction.

With an upcoming opening at Public Safety, the government has at least two options. One approach is based on the premise that the controversy over the bill was due primarily to the messenger and not the substance of the bill. If the government determines that Toews was to blame, a new minister may simply tweak the communications strategy and push the bill through the legislative process.

Alternatively, a new minister provides a convenient opportunity for an Internet surveillance restart. The change in ministers would allow the government to walk away from Bill C-30 since new ministers often seek to place their own stamp on department policies and priorities. A fresh approach could include scrapping the bill, launching a public consultation, or asking a House of Commons committee to study the issue before moving ahead with new legislation.

The different lawful access possibilities are reminiscent of the public battle over copyright reform in 2007. After then Industry Minister Jim Prentice faced a public backlash over planned legislation, the government delayed introducing the copyright bill just hours before it was to have been tabled. The bill sat on the notice paper for six months as an internal debate raged over whether to introduce it largely unchanged (but with a new communications strategy) or to scrap it and go back to the drawing board.

The government opted for the first option, introducing the bill in June 2008. The bill faced the expected criticism and died soon thereafter. With a change in minister – Tony Clement became Industry minister after a fall election – the government started over, beginning with a national copyright consultation in 2010.

Several years later, the government faces many of the same political and policy dynamics with an unpopular Internet bill and questions about whether it can be saved. While it may be politically tempting to stay the course with a new minister, the better approach would be to start over.

Dropping Bill C-30 would send a strong signal that the government is prepared to re-examine the issue, starting with a full public consultation on how to best balance the need for online security with the public interest of appropriate privacy safeguards.


  1. A “consultation”? Seriously?
    Why waste the money?

    The copyright fiasco has shown more than crystal-clearly, that the Harper dictatorship doesn’t give a big fat hairy rat’s ass what his constituency thinks and wants and only cares about what big business wants.

    Seriously. Save the money. Put it towards feeding some of the starving children in this country rather than pissing it away on a charade of a “full public consultation”.

    We all know Harper is just going to do whatever he wants anyway.

  2. James Plotkin says:

    cynical much?

    I don’t know if I agree with you. I mean, you’re right that the Harper Government will ultimately do whatever it wants. That’s probably the most appealing thing about having a majority government.

    That being said, If the Harper Government blatantly ignores the public sentiment on this issue, I have no doubt his opponents will be itching to take him to task over it in the next federal election.

    If the Canadian public as a whole is truly against the bill C-30 approach, they should be given an opportunity to manifest that disagreement; If not for now, then for the next time we go to the polls.

  3. How can he be allowed to be appointed as judge?!
    I don’t get it! How on earth is a MP allowed to revert to being a judge? The moment anyone with a law degree (judge, attorney, whatever) becomes a MP, it should automatically disqualify them from ever becoming judge. How can an ex-politician be impartial? Asking the question is answering it!

    Once you get into politics, you’re no longer impartial, common sense would be that either you can never be judge anymore or a long waiting period should occur before it could happen (10 years or so).

  4. Unrequired says:

    A fresh start? Maybe that’s optimistic pragmatism, but how about a fresh stop?

    And Towes was a crown attorney? The “I don’t know what’s in my bill” guy, a career-politician since ~1989, will be a judge for “the highest court in the province”? I know it’s a boot from the federal cabinet, but they couldn’t just offer him the executive directorship of Steinbach Library in MB? It’s the Jake Epp Library, after the last conservative Provincher MP.

    “Once you get into politics, you’re no longer impartial”, not necessarily. That said, an ex-politician’s decisions should be additionally scrutinized for bias, and probably shouldn’t be the last stop for an appeals process.

  5. OK, a few things …
    First, my condolences to the citizens of Manitoba.

    Second, I am certainly all for protecting children from sexual predators and would support *effective* measures to do so.

    Third, Bill C-30 had nothing to do with the second regardless of what the first said, so starting over would be the best option.

    Lastly, I hope if there is consultation and sober thought on a new bill that it will actually be considered and implemented, rather than a vain quid pro quo.

  6. Mr.
    Welcome Citizen!.. To the United States of Canada

  7. This scandal was censored
    On the one hand parliament debated the legal status of the threat by operation Vic.tory to release this scandal and everyone covered the debate, but once the threat was fulfilled and the scandal was released, no one covered it.

    The scandal is still posted on youtube, the transcript is here on pastebin:

    If better known, this scandal should avoid this dangerous appointment.

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