Bill C-51 (Anti-terrorism Act, 2015) is a sweeping piece of legislation that was pushed through in the wake a ‘lone wolf terrorist’ attack on the national war memorial and parliament building in October last year, and which left one soldier dead.
Proposed by the majority Conservative Party and supported by the Liberal Party (but opposed by the official opposition New Democratic Party and the Green Party), the legislation initially enjoyed overwhelming public support. However, in the face of outrage from not just civil liberties groups, but from many of Canada’s most respected academics and legal experts, this support has largely melted away.
The Bill has now passed its third reading in the House of Commons (183-96 in favor), but growing alarm at the scope of its provisions (the details of which have mainly not been made available to the public) is fuelling growing unrest throughout the country.
What is known is that Bill C-51 is designed to ‘reduce’ terrorism threats by giving government departments, the police, and CSIS (Canada’s version of the NSA) unprecedented powers to share information about individuals or groups between departments (and other Five Eyes spying partners). It lowers the threshold required for proof of arrest in suspected terror cases, allows ‘secret courts’ for terrorism cases, and gives Canadian spies the authority to ‘counter-message’ or ‘disrupt’ radical websites’ (even outside Canada).
It did not take long for four former Canadian prime ministers, five former Supreme Court justices, and several cabinet ministers to issue a dire warning about the implications of such legislation,
‘Protecting human rights and protecting public safety are complementary objectives, but experience has shown that serious human rights abuses can occur in the name of maintaining national security. Given the secrecy around national security activities, abuses can go undetected and without remedy. This results not only in devastating personal consequences for the individuals, but a profoundly negative impact on Canada’s reputation as a rights-respecting nation.’
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was initially scornful of such criticism, but this tactic of dismissively labeling those opposed to the bill as ‘ridiculous’ ‘extremists’ has been backfired somewhat in light of the respected and authoritative positions held by its critics. These argue that the Bill will be used to undemocratically suppress legitimate dissent, and criminalize the actions of indigenous rights campaigners, environmental protestors, and more. As Daniel Therrien, Privacy Commissioner of Canada, notes,
‘The scale of information sharing being proposed is unprecedented, the scope of the new powers conferred by the act is excessive, particularly as these powers affect ordinary Canadians, and the safeguards protecting against unreasonable loss of privacy are seriously deficient. All Canadians would be caught in this web.’
This is view echoed by more than 100 Canadian law professors, who describe Bill C-51 as a ‘dangerous piece of legislation,’
‘It is sadly ironic that democratic debate is being curtailed on a bill that vastly expands the scope of covert state activity when that activity will be subject to poor or even non-existent democratic oversight or review.’
Despite its initial popularity (70 percent approval ratings before the first reading), recent polls indicate that 52 per cent of those aware of the bill now disapprove (with 38 percent in favor). This grows to 75 percent among young Canadians between the ages of 18 and 34 who are opposed to the Bill. As opposition mounts, it now seems likely that Bill C-51 will become a major point of contention in the upcoming election in October.
Bill C-11 (the Copyright Modernization Act)
Controversy over Bill C-51 comes on top of widespread unease at another recent piece of legislation that has widespread privacy implications. In 2012 the Bill C-11 amendment to the Copyright Act of Canada required,
‘[ISPs to] retain records that will allow the identity of the person to whom the electronic location belongs to be determined, and do so for six months […].” Failing to forward a notice may result in “[…] statutory damages in an amount that the court considers just, but not less than $5,000 and not more than $10,000”.’
Although primarily aimed at tackling copyright piracy, this broad data retention law gives government agencies (such as CSIS) vastly improved capabilities to monitor citizens’ internet communications.
Using VPN to evade government surveillance
VPN is a great tool for evading blanket government surveillance, but you should be aware of a couple of key points:
- It will not help individuals who are of specific interest to the Canadian authorities
- Thanks to Bill C-11 you should avoid Canada-based VPN providers (and servers). It is not clear whether VPN providers are subject to the legislation (and many still claim to offer a ‘no logs’ service), but given the ‘greyness’ of the situation, we would recommend avoiding.
Despite these caveats, we are expecting to see a surge in VPN use as ordinary Canadians move to protect their privacy. This would reflect the situation in Australia, where some VPN providers reported a 500 percent jump in VPN use following the introduction of new anti-terrorism legislation (and a copyright piracy crackdown).