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.
For even if the government reintroduces the same acts, it has been mum on the regulations carriers will have to obey to comply with the laws. The regulations are set by cabinet. And, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.
When they are released -- and usually that doesn't come until after legislation is passed -- "that's when the real action begins," said a lawyer for one carrier, who asked not to be identified.
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.
Providers also hope it will have a “safe harbour” clause that protects them from prosecution if they buy gear that is compliant today but doesn’t fit government needs in the future.
“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.
If it turns out a small ISP has to spend $1 million on equipment “there’s going to be opposition to that,” promises CNOC
president William Sandiford
, who also heads Telnet Communications.
Finding providers willing to speak on the record about a touchy area that involves a regulated industry, national security, business processes and customer privacy isn’t easy.