A rational look at Bill C-30

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The debate surrounding the federal government’s recently introduced “The Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act”, or Bill C-30, has raised emotions on all sides.  The need to protect children from exploitation has been pitted against the the individual’s right to privacy, so there’s no surprise that sparks are flying. But let’s take a rational look at the legislation and what it could mean for Canadians.

I’ve talked about the fact that trust underlies the success of the Internet. The reality is that the Internet is a series of transactions among people, whether through personal communication or technological/ informational communication at the domain name system (DNS). Legislation like C-30 erodes this trust by allowing an unknown, unauthorized party access to what was previously considered private communications. Ironically, this is the very thing that we in the Internet industry are trying to protect by implementing DNSSEC.

The Internet has become omnipresent in our lives. Between our search history, online activity and GPS enabled smart phones, we leave our digital footprints everywhere. And if given the power to do so, the government can easily put together a very detailed profile of any individual, all without a warrant. In my opinion, without the oversight of the courts in gaining this information, the potential for mistakes, or even abuse, is too great. We don’t have to look very far to find instances where law enforcement overstepped its bounds to catch the ‘bad guy’ and got it wrong. We now know that Mahar Arar was tortured in a Syrian prison based on misinformation provided by Canadian law enforcement authorities.

Not to be alarmist, but we don’t have a great history of state surveillance. It’s within the lifetime of most of us that informants or the ‘Stasi’ in Eastern Germany, and its equivalent in Poland, the former Yugoslavia, and other Eastern Bloc nations had neighbours spy on neighbours and report back to the state. Having the technology to now do the surveillance for us – thereby removing the human element – doesn’t make it anymore acceptable to a democratic society. It is ultimately the same paradigm of an informant-based means of controlling society. As Benjamin Franklin wrote nearly 300 years ago, “They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security.” Just because we can surveil citizens en masse doesn’t mean we should. In fact, given that technology can now easily and cheaply monitor just about everything you do and everywhere you go, I would argue that government needs to be even more vigilant in protecting its citizens’ right to privacy. The current government is correct that we need to modernize the legislation around this issue, let’s just make sure we modernize the right things.

Governments also don’t have a stellar track record of protecting data on its citizens when it’s collected, either. From health information to detailed information on taxpayers, data breaches within government departments happen all too often to make me comfortable with the government having a database of Canadians’ browsing history.

Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, called Minister Toew’s assertion that the Bill would ensure law enforcement have the tools they need to fight crime in the 21st century “nonsense.” In fact, all of Canada’s privacy commissioners have come out against C-30.

Yes, we need to stop malicious activity on the Internet. There is no question about that. But legislation like C-30 casts a net over the entire population based on the actions of an incredibly small number of people. This is akin to dropping a nuke to kill a cockroach – the same analogy I used a few weeks ago to describe SOPA. Effective? Maybe, but at what cost? Too high, in my opinion. Anything that erodes the trust that has enabled the tremendous economic and social growth the Internet has been responsible for over the past two decades cannot be worth the outcome.

I am in total agreement that there is a need for a quick and efficient means of taking town unlawful online materials or websites. But, this can be done in a variety of ways that doesn’t require sweeping legislation like Bill C-30. In fact, CIRA already have an example of how the privacy of Canadians can be protected while still allowing law enforcement the ability to act quickly without needing to take the judicial route (i.e. court orders) with our WHOIS database.

Our WHOIS has an administrative instrument (no court order required) whereby domain names can be disabled if it is “directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, is or may become involved” in one of a set of activities (which includes the distribution of child pornography). All without infringing upon an individual’s right to privacy.

Canadians are an ingenious lot – I’m pretty sure, given the right resources and people, we can come up with a well thought out, rational approach that will enable law enforcement to do their job without compromising the rights of Canadians. As a free and democratic nation, we should expect nothing less.

What do you think? Can we protect the most vulnerable in our society without infringing on citizen’s rights?

The 2012 Canadian Internet Forum

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On February 27, 2012, we’re hosting the Canadian Internet Forum (CIF) national event in Ottawa. At the CIF, I will present findings from a three-month online dialogue with Canadians about the development of the Internet. There is no cost to attend.

I am happy to announce that Robert Herjavec will be joining us to deliver the keynote address. Robert is the well-known star of CBC’s Dragons’ Den and ABC’s Shark Tank. He’s also a very successful Canadian Internet entrepreneur – he lives and breathes the business of the Internet.

A panel that draws from a diverse section of the Internet community will also be part of the event, including Michael Geist (University of Ottawa), Steve Anderson (Open Media), Bill Graham (Internet Society), Bertrand de la Chapelle (ICANN), and Frédérick Gaudreau (Sûreté du Québec). They will discuss both the challenges and opportunities for the Internet in Canada. And, we have worked a lot of time into the agenda to hear from you. We want to hear your opinions on how you think the Internet should develop.

If you will be in Ottawa, please join us. If you’re not, you can still participate via webcast. And while the Internet continues to have a huge impact on society – it has had immeasurable impact on the global economy and the spread of democracy – there are few events like the CIF that give a voice to Canadian Internet users. In light of issues that have gotten a lot of attention recently (like SOPA and ACTA), I strongly encourage you to get involved in this unique event.

The Internet has become the driver of a new, knowledge-based economy, and has radically altered the ways in which we communicate with each other. I believe it is the greatest driver of social change since the printing press.

However, most of us do not give a lot of thought to how the Internet is run, nor who runs it. Nor are there many venues for the average Internet user to have a say in how they think it should develop. Yet in light of recent events – SOPA for one – the Internet is too important to be left to ‘someone else’ to look after. Yes, the SOPA protest was a great example of digital citizens exercising their digital rights. Collectively, we shut down legislation that would have done away with the free and open Internet. But with those rights include responsibilities, including the responsibility to voice your opinion, in a reasoned and thoughtful way, about how it should develop.

This is why I think it is critical for Canadians to participate in the CIF. Please register for the national event, and take the time in the next day or so to join the conversation at the CIF discussion forum.

There’s still time to have your say in the CIF online forum. You have until February 12 to engage in the discussion. Hot topics among Canadians included digital literacy, security and safety, access/cost, digital economy, policy and governance, and technology and regulation.

Please visit cif.cira.ca to talk about the issues on your mind, and join us on February 27 for Canada’s best Internet event.