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Canada's Conservatives Are Using Cyberbullying to Normalise Online Surveillance

Bill C-13 appears to be the latest Trojan horse maneuver by Stephen Harper's government.

Canada's Minister of Justice, Peter MacKay, gesticulating wildly, via WikiCommons.

The political banner of “cyberbullying” is one that I’ve found to be particularly problematic since I began covering the Amanda Todd story in October of last year. In the case of her suicide, the relentless harassment that seems to have pushed Amanda to take her own life was not simply a matter of classmates leaving nasty messages on her Facebook wall. Instead, Amanda was sexually extorted and blackmailed by strangers online, which is an insidious and hard to prosecute offence that’s inarguably more dangerous than cyberbullying. This is a difficult (but crucial) angle of the Amanda Todd story that some Canadian media outlets are only catching up to now.


Despite the complexities of Amanda’s case, the global attention and activism surrounding her death has helped stir up Ottawa to write new anti-cyberbulling legislation, a cause the Conservative government has proudly tacked onto their public agenda. Along with the tragically high-profile suicide of Amanda Todd is the case of Rehtaeh Parsons – the Nova Scotian teenager who took her own life after a photograph of her, unconscious and allegedly being sexually assaulted, circulated throughout her high school for almost two years without any meaningful intervention from her school or law enforcement. Unlike Amanda’s case, charges have been laid against Rehtaeh’s alleged tormenters.

The heartbreaking stories of both Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons caused a palpable amount of outrage in Canada, which is why it may be relieving to read that the Conservative government is trying to pass Bill C-13, a law that Justice Minister Peter MacKay is presenting as a pre-requisite to fighting back against the “hurtful” proliferation of “intimate images” online. Bill C-13, however, appears to be a hybrid of some tightened protection for anyone who may find themselves at the receiving end of a revenge porn nightmare, increased online surveillance powers for law enforcement and stricter punishments for those who steal cable TV signals – because apparently the content thieves of the 1990s are still out there splicing cable wires.


Beyond the strange inclusion of cable TV signal thievery is an even more worrying addition. In 2012, Vic Toews, Canada’s unpleasant former public safety minister, tried to turn an online surveillance bill called Bill C-30 into law. That bill – which Vic infamously defended by saying people were either on side with it or “with the child pornographers” – was described by the NDP as effectively placing an “electronic prisoner’s bracelet on every Canadian.” That law, much like Bill C-13, was sandwiched into anti-child porn legislation; but in reality it would have legalised warrantless access to the customer records of internet service providers for law enforcement. It would have also mandated ISPs to install surveillance tools, while giving police new powers to access the surveillance data it would have been forced to collect. Sounds a lot like what the NSA has done to America, doesn’t it?

It’s not a stretch to think this legislation was written in an attempt to catch up with the rest of Canada’s surveillance partners in the Five Eyes – i.e. the US, UK, New Zealand and Australia. While defending C-30, Vic Toews even said that it was simply in line with what those other four countries were already doing. And even though Bill C-30 was crushed in 2012, similar anti-privacy provisions have popped up in this new cyberbulling bill, Bill C-13.

Peter MacKay has publicly denied the accusations that C-13 is just a redux of C-30, adding that unlike C-30, access to surveillance data will require a judicial warrant. This is certainly refreshing to hear – because if this law has been designed to catch the bad guys who exploit children, as the government says, why would a warrant ever be a problem or something to keep secret?


Bill C-13 has also removed the provision from C-30 that would have required ISPs to install surveillance equipment that would intercept information in real time. However, as Michael Geist (an internet-famous academic, columnist and research chair in internet and e-commerce at the University of Ottawa) pointed out, C-13 provides civil and criminal immunity to ISPs who “voluntarily” provide customer information to law enforcement agencies that ask for it – without a warrant – and C-13 has expanded the privilege for making such requests. This seems like a really sketchy workaround to the obviously offensive, warrantless requests of private information that C-30 attempted to make law – while still allowing the same powers to exist.

To further complicate things, the criminal implications of these new provisions that are supposed to protect subjects of intimate images from having their naked photos spread online sound like they’ll be difficult to prosecute. The Canadian Privacy Law Blog has a great breakdown of the implications that a girlfriend sending her “idiot boyfriend” a nude photo would have if that same idiot boyfriend began to spread the photo online. At what point do recipients or viewers of that photo become legally absolved, if they are unaware that the photo was spread against the initial subject’s will? How can that be proven or disproven in court? And why wasn’t it always illegal to spread illicit images of people without their consent? At least in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons – and others who may have had to face similar forms of sexual assault and harassment with less media attention – she was protected by child pornography laws.

Evidently, Bill C-13 is a complex piece of legislation that has packed in a bunch of new provisions under one seemingly simple (but, in fact, complicated) cause: cyberbullying. The Conservative government has an unpopular history of jamming many different provisions into one jumbled bill – a political strategy that, in the case of Bill C-13, has been described as a Trojan horse maneuver. While Ontario’s privacy commissioner agrees that C-13 is not as batshit crazy as C-30, it has stated this new cyberbullying bill will “significantly increase rather than merely maintain the state’s surveillance capacity.”

Given that cyberbullying generally amounts to name-calling and teenage harassment online – unless we are talking about a more complex, criminal scenario like what we saw with Amanda Todd, or child porn distribution and sexual assault in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons – it seems unbelievable that the government would be planning such a huge criminal overhaul to catch a few teenage bullies. Bill C-13 is expansive enough to take on cable TV thieves and terrorists, so it’s clearly unfair, and frankly sneaky, to package all of this as a cyberbullying law. Canadians should be paying attention to, and unpacking, this expansive and powerful surveillance bill because it is sure to shift the powers of Canadian law enforcement to forge an NSA-style surveillance state if it passes.