Now that it has a majority, service providers expect the Conservative government will soon push its long-promised lawful access laws through Parliament. Here’s a preview of the issues
For several years Canadian telecommunications service providers, public interest groups and federal opposition parties have been wrestling with Harper government’s promise to expand lawful access police have over online communications.
Among other things, the Conservatives want to give law enforcement agencies emergency powers to demand personal information about Internet subscribers without a judicial warrant, and to compel telecom providers install equipment to give police the capability to intercept electronic communications.
Now that the Conservatives have a majority, the day when that legislation can be passed has come closer.
However, while telecom carriers – and the public — have known for months what the legislation will likely include because parts were introduced almost a year ago, they are still uncertain on whether the changes will cost them small change or millions of dollars.
Amongst other things, the regulations will detail the standards for the equipment carriers and Internet providers will need to buy, how soon their networks will have to be prepared, and whether there will be compensation for the equipment and for the time it may take to pull subscriber details from their databases.
“We really do have to wait for the regs,” says Bill Munson, vice-president of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), whose members include wireline carriers. ITAC and the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), which includes cellphone companies, have formed a joint committee which keeps close contact with senior government bureaucrats on the proposed changes.
The signals have always been the government understands the industry’s concerns, Munson said.
“Their hints have always been broad – ‘Don’t worry, about it we catch you and we’ll take care of that.’ But it’s easier to say than to do.”
Similarly, the Canadian Network Operators Consortium (CNOC), which represents a number of independent Internet providers, is leery about the costs.
Several major providers didn’t reply to a request for comment, while one would only talk off the record.
One of those that did release a comment was BCE Inc. [TSX, NYSE: BCE], parent of Bell Canada. “While we obviously can’t comment on legislation that hasn’t yet been reintroduced, our primary concern in this area has always been the capacity of industry to implement any new requirements and who bears the cost,” said spokesman Jacqueline Michelis in an email. “Also, customer privacy remains a top priority.”
For its part, the government is working hard to counter allegations from the New Democratic Party and public interest groups that the legislation will allow surveillance of communications without a warrant.
“The government is trying to push through a set of electronic surveillance laws that will invade your privacy and cost you money,” says StopSpying.ca, a Web site set up by OpenMedia.ca to lobby against increasing police intercept powers without judicial oversight.
Similarly, last month Quebec NDP member Charmane Borg complained during Question Period that the Conservatives intend “allowing police officers to spy on citizens on the Internet without a warrant.”
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews immediately denounced “outrageous claims” like that. The proposed legislation would give a designated officer the right to demand subsciber information a provider has such as name, IP address, email address and identifying information for a mobile device. But, Toews emphasized, a judge will still have to authorize the interception of private communications.
That isn’t good enough for privacy advocates like Halifax lawyer David T. S. Fraser, who argues in his blog that even that amount of information shouldn’t be divulged to a police department without judicial consent.
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