First they came for your Internet connection

How much is your privacy worth to you? Your liberty? Your fundamental rights? The answers may vary, but it’s a safe bet that you value these things more highly than does the government.

Along with a plethora of unnecessary and expensive law-and-order measures – including billions of dollars for American-style prisons – the federal government is quietly preparing to erode your civil liberties in its new omnibus bill.

As with the G8/G20 fiasco, Stephen Harper has shown he cares not for your rights, nor for your money – he’s prepared to trample the former, and squander the latter in the name of his priorities.

Oh, this is all couched in the language of increased safety, drawing heavily on terrorism rhetoric.

This government is not the first to take authoritarian steps – that’s been going on for decades – but it certainly has been eager to take advantage of the post-9/11 frenzy, joining the U.S., UK and other nominal democracies in clawing back hard-won rights.

Many governments in the West have been quick to foster a culture of fear, allowing them to impose laws that would have been unthinkable before 9/11 and to spend vast sums of money on military, police and security programs that have enriched the coffers of a few at everyone else’s expense.

With each new measure that increases video, phone and Internet surveillance, overrides the judicial process and creates new enemies through wars, we edge a little closer to the kind of dystopian state Orwell, Huxley and countless others have warned us about. These are steps that support Benjamin Franklin’s oft-quoted warning that “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

While there is much to be worried and skeptical about in the Conservative’s omnibus bill, perhaps most troubling are the so-called lawful access rules. These would bring into being sweeping Internet surveillance requirements, forcing Internet service providers to track your online activities, disclose personal information to the government and put in place even more sophisticated monitoring equipment. The information would be turned over without any judicial oversight.

That prospect has Canada’s provincial and national privacy commissioners worried. Earlier this year, they signed a collective statement opposing the proposed legislation, in particular Bill C-52, the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act.

“We believe that there is insufficient justification for the new powers, that other, less intrusive alternatives can be explored and that a focused, tailored approach is vital. In our view, this balance has not been achieved,” they wrote in a submission to the federal government.

While acknowledging that law enforcement agencies may need access to some information in some cases, they argued against sweeping powers that put personal privacy and freedoms at risk. To date, there seems to be no real justification for the proposals, beyond simply eroding rights because they think they can get away with it.

“It is also noteworthy that at no time have Canadian authorities provided the public with any evidence or reasoning to suggest that CSIS or any other Canadian law enforcement agencies have been frustrated in the performance of their duties as a result of shortcomings attributable to current law,” the privacy commissioners say. “New powers should be demonstrably necessary as well as proportionate. Ultimately, even if Canadian authorities can show investigations are being frustrated in a digital environment, all the various powers that would be granted to address these issues must be subject to rigorous, independent oversight.”

Last week, a group of academics and public interest organizations joined in on the call for an end to the Harper proposals, releasing a joint letter to the Prime Minister voicing their grave concerns about legislation that would allow for warrantless online spying on Canadians. The letter calls on the government to, at minimum, give the proposed legislation an appropriate hearing instead of rushing it through Parliament.

That letter is just the latest in a series of protests about the legislation. The Stop Online Spying Coalition has prompted more than 46,000 Canadians to sign an online petition at www.StopSpying.ca lambasting the government’s anti-privacy initiatives.

“This legislation has never been to committee and MPs haven’t heard a single witness on what the government is proposing,” says Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. “Given the serious concerns expressed by the privacy commissioners, burying these proposals in a catchall [crime] omnibus bill is reckless and irresponsible.”

“With so many raising concerns over this ‘chilling’ online spying scheme, the government must realize just how problematic its lawful access mandate is,” says Tamir Israel, staff lawyer with the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic. “We hope that it reconsiders and acts to prevent what this serious erosion of our civil liberties.”

The government will refute such sensible arguments against its anti-democratic legislation by playing up fears and touting public safety. Every time it does so, you would do well to remember Benjamin Franklin’s words.

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