Why CETA is bad for Canadian Internet Users

As many of you know big media lobbyists have lost several battles to impose severe Internet restrictions at the national level in bill C-11 here in Canada, and in SOPA/PIPA in the US. You also may know they are increasingly looking to impose these restrictions through secretive International trade agreements that route around our democratic processes and blanket these restrictions on many countries at once. One such agreement was the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) which recently saw a major setback in the EU.

Another trade agreement acting as a vehicle for Internet censorship, and one that looks to be the front line in the fight for Internet freedom is one we’ve raised the alarm about: the TPP Internet Trap trade agreement. But alas, there’s another undemocratic trade agreement for the Internet community to worry about called the Canada-EU Trade Agreement (CETA).

There has been uproar in Europe over the last few weeks over a leaked portion of CETA which suggests that some of the worst Internet restriction provisions of ACTA are being reproduced word for word in the new CETA agreement. The European Commission initially declined to respond fully to the leaked document, instead tweeting its reassurances. But the public outcry and media attention it has received has prompted a more comprehensive response. Ottawa Law Professor Michael Geist has written about the European reaction, and what the implications are for Canadians.

What is CETA?

The Canada – EU Trade Agreement is a wide-ranging trade agreement that covers most sectors of the economy, including the Internet. According to the leaked document, dated February 2012, the intellectual property chapter draws heavily from the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement– the highly unpopular agreement which was widely protested against and voted down by the European Parliament earlier this month due to the restrictions on Internet use it would have imposed.

In an interview Geist noted that keeping the same language “may have seemed like a good idea in February, by July it became enormously problematic since the Parliament had rejected ACTA and the inclusion of the same language within CETA appeared to be a direct challenge to the Parliament”. Possibly as a result of this, the European Commission issued a response in which it claimed that some of the controversial provisions had been changed, but as you’ll see from our summary of Geist below, this claim is not good enough.

What’s wrong with CETA?

1. The European Commission says that it has removed from CETA the controversial ACTA provisions which risk user privacy by forcing Internet service providers to disclose the identity of alleged copyright infringers. However problems with an ACTA approach go beyond these provisions and include expansive digital lock provisions which would give big media conglomerates more power to control our use of media and the Internet.

2. The ACTA approach employs criminal penalties including imprisonment and high monetary fines for accused “infringers”. In other words this agreement is very similar to the TPP’s Internet trap that we’ve been campaigning against at http://stopthetrap.net, but it would apply this scheme to the EU which is not presently a part of the TPP.

3. As an alternative to an ACTA approach, the European Commission appears to now favour the approach taken in a previous EU-Korea trade agreement that is itself problematic. The EU-Korea style ISP provision would permit the use of website blocking and three-strikes systems for terminating the Internet access of accused content infringers, and possibly the removal of content without a court order. These are all provisions that go beyond current Canadian law.

4. The EU-Korea style agreement the European Commission is currently pushing would have a much broader scope than ACTA, would give extended rights to broadcasters and would implement stronger border measures including searches of alleged infringers. This will make it easier for media conglomerates to shut down online content and limit our choice online.

5. CETA, ACTA, and the EU-Korea agreement have all been negotiated with high levels of secrecy, creating public distrust.

So it seems that an EU-Canadian agreement will either involve a more extreme version of ACTA, or an equally problematic version of the EU-Korea agreement (which Canadian policymakers never wanted).

These extreme and secretive trade agreements are starting to seem a lot like whac-a-mole: you knock one down and the same provisions appear in a different agreement. But as Geist notes, “[w]ith the public now very focused on ACTA and one-sided [intellectual property] agreements, I think it will be very difficult to sneak ACTA through the CETA backdoor”. That’s why it’s so important for Canadians to stay vigilant to new challenges posed to our online freedoms, and to make our voices heard.

OpenMedia will keep a close eye on this file and report back as it develops.


Originally posted at http://openmedia.ca/blog/why-ceta-bad-canadian-internet-users


So what is this cyber-thing anyway?

Whether Syrian rebels hacked President Bashar al-Assad’s e-mails themselves or with the help of Western spy agencies or “hactivists”, the release of dozens of revealing messages points to a new era of information warfare (para. 1).

So begins an article in the Globe and Mail last month. The number of referents in this short passage really emphasizes the fact that we still don’t really know how to talk about things that happen in cyberspace. There are rebels, spy agencies, activists, hackers, and nation-states, all apparenty now considered key actors in warfare.

Umm… what frame are we using again? There are guerrila tactics, there’s espionage, protest, digital trespass with probable criminal damage, and covert military operations, all grouped together under the delightfully vague term of ‘information warfare’, which has been used to indicate everything from propaganda to shutting down the power grid.

So what actually happened? Members of Syria’s opposition ‘intercepted’ emails from President Bashar al-Assad’s office. Somehow these emails reveal “evidence of Iranian support for Syria’s crackdown… the spending of thousands of dollars on luxury items by Mr. Assad’s wife and details of his iTunes account and Internet video viewing habits” (para. 4).

There is no need for details about how this ‘interception’ occurred because it is understood that ‘hackers’ can just tap some keys and find out this kind of information through the magic of ‘the Internet’. However later on it is mentioned that “[t]he Syrian opposition say they were given details of the passwords by an internal regime source” (para. 12). It’s easy to ‘hack’ an email account when you’re given the password.

In this discussion, Wikileaks is mentioned in the same breath as Chinese censorship, and reference is made to suspected Chinese ‘hackers’ who used their coding know-how to… create a fake Facebook profile for NATO supreme commander Admiral James Stavridis, hoping to fool collegues into ‘friending’ and sharing top secret intel with them. Over Facebook.

Communications systems have long been a target in warfare, and misinformation and propaganda, or ‘strategic communication’ as they are increasingly called, are staples of conflicts. However the weaponizing of information that we see in this article is I think an indicator of something else. For some reason, because these things are occurring online, they somehow become completely new. We forget what it is we are talking about when things happen in cyberspace. So what should clearly be a case of espionage, with the resulting information being used as propaganda, is actually an instance of ‘hacktivism’ and ‘cyber warfare’, a “tool that could become increasingly popular” (para. 14), as if there is no historical precedent. In addition, so poor is the general understanding of how the machines which we spend so much of our lives hooked up to actually, technically, work, that we fall back on the use of buzzwords which change their meaning daily, and are almost universally inaccurate in describing the situations to which they are applied.

For some reason, the prefix ‘cyber’ is attached to all things that occur online, with little attention is given to the appended part of the term in arriving at a definition and appropriate usage. Cyber-terrorism, cyber-warfare, cyber-crime, cyber-espionage… they all seem to be used indiscriminately, despite the fact that we have fairly static definitions for what counts as terrorism, warfare, crime, and espionage, hammered out for jurisdictional certainty if nothing else. And yet, when they occur online, all this goes out the window. Never mind the fact that the definition of ‘cyber’ is completely amorphous, given the fact that it is usually assumed to refer to the Internet, which is itself a network of networks, and that there are many networks that are not connected to the Internet.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the confusion. Twenty years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end to the last clear national threat frame. It’s over a decade since the beginning of the amorphous ‘war on terror’ into which anyone and anything can be subsumed. Add to this ever-expanding threat frame a history of technophobia that can be traced from War of the Worlds through to War Games, The Matrix, and Die Hard 4.0, and you have a situation where the  definition of cyber-anything can change as frequently as is convenient for the powers that be.

Searching for Freedom

A bit of a political economic post today to balance the cultural bent of yesterday’s. I’m currently writing about the framing of the showdown that occurred two years ago between Google and China, when attacks on the digital infrastructure of Google and as many as 34 other major U.S. ICT organizations resulted, in a bizarre twist of logic, in Google’s refusal to continue censoring its search results in China, in the name of freedom. Google’s unhappy decision to abide by Chinese censorship laws, and the degree to which it did so, had long been a sticking point between the search engine and the Chinese government. However the cyberattacks were clearly an attempt at intellectual property theft, especially given the simultaneous intrusions at so many other companies. However in Google’s statement on the matter, it seemlessly combined the two issues, explaining that “These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with attempts over the past year to limit free speech on the Web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China” (para. 8). While some speculated on the effect this would have on U.S.-China relations, the U.S. government jumped at the chance to push China on its censorship and human rights issues, emphasizing the need for a free and open internet. Of course this freedom benefits the U.S. as it opens up China to U.S. ideology.

The themes of national security, economic markets, and human rights are seemlessly blended together in the news coverage of the incident. The attack was against Google, targeting its digital infrastructure, so it should clearly be a business issue between Google and China (and the other victims of the attack), and not necessarily something that influences U.S. foreign policy. But Google’s motto is ‘do no evil’, and the email accounts of human rights activists were also targeted in the attacks. In addition, censorship has been a major bone of contention between Google and China, and it’s an issue which resonates with the American people and with the U.S. ideology of openness, democracy, and freedom. At the same time, there are longstanding issues of Chinese espionage in the U.S., with China trying to access U.S. companies’ trade secrets, as well as pirating U.S. products, so the targeting of Google’s intellectual property plus that of 34 other major companies could be seen as an issue of national economic security as much as it’s a problem for those specific companies.

Google’s Empire

So the issue is far more complex than “the Chinese hacked us so we’re not censoring their search results any more”. What made Google’s announcement significant is that U.S. companies face successfuland unsuccessful cyberattacks all the time, but no one talks about them because they fear the negative publicity it will bring, and the effects this may have on public confidence in their product, and subsiquently on their share prices. Google decided to risk that negative publicity in admitting that its infrastructure is not secure, because they had something bigger to gain. The attacks were a convenient excuse to challenge issues of censorship that have an economic as well as ideological impact. Google has always framed its decisions around censorship in moral terms, but there is also a strong economic incentive; China is one of the biggest online markets globally, and Google wanted access to it. If Google decided to walk away from this potentially lucrative market, then it must be for economic as much as moral reasons. In looking at Google’s historical position on censorship, we can see how these economic incentives have played out.

Censorship Issues

One of the first tests of Google’s stance on censorship was in 2004, when complaints were received over the top search results that were returned when the query ‘Jew’ was entered. An anti-Semitic site called ‘Jew Watch’ displaced Wikipedia as the top entry, as well as various Holocaust denier sites. The issue highlighted a central concern of Internet governance: jurisdiction online. Different nations have different approaches to hate speech; in the U.S., freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution, and therefore all types of speech are protected, although there are exceptions for when such speech results in civil rights infringements, or enables terrorism. European countries on the other hand have much stronger laws around the restriction of hate speech, indicative of the stamp that the Holocaust has left on the continent (Geist, 2002). Jurisdictional issues are raised when websites hosted in the U.S. are accessible in Europe, and notably when these sites are made available to European countries through U.S.-based search engines. The common response from ISPs in such cases was usually to direct the complainant to the website owner. However this was challenged in one of the most famous early cyberlaw cases, wherein a French judge ordered Yahoo! to block access to Nazi memorabilia available in its auctions, and Yahoo! responded by suspending these auctions to appease the French court. As Michael Geist notes, “[a]lthough the decision raises issues pertaining to jurisdiction, the Internet’s technological underpinnings, and commercial free speech, at its core the case is about France seeking to apply its hate speech laws to Internet activity” (2002, p. 190).

In Google’s case, the censorship challenge in April of 2004 came from within the U.S., from the Anti-Defamation League. Google responded to complaints over its search results with the application of its mantra “don’t be evil”, which was generally determined by what founder Sergey Brin says is evil (Levy, 2011, p.273). Brin decided to stand by the purity of Google’s computer algorithms, stating that

[t]he beliefs of and preference of those who work at Google, as well as the opinions of the general public, do not determine or impact our search results… Google views the comprehensiveness of our search results as an extremely important priority. Accordingly, we do not remove a page from our search results simply because its content is unpopular or because we receive complaints concerning it. (in Vaidhyanathan, 2011, p. 65)

Concerned, however, that Google would be seen as endorsing these anti-Semitic views, the company provided its own ‘sponsored link’ to the search query, which explained how the algorithms could sometimes produce such disturbing results. Since then, however, this adherence to the purity of the algorithm has waned; Vidhyanathan points out that, despite this defense that the results were purely computer generated, similar results were not yielded when the German site Google.de was visited, indicating that the manipulation of search results was well within Google’s control, but it chose to intervene only in certain circumstances, to respect the laws of the nations within which it operates, and thus ensure its continued operation there. By 2007, Vidhyanathan notes that Google had changed its ‘explanation of our search results’ page so that search results were no longer “automatically” determined by computer algorithms, but rather the results “rely heavily” on these algorithms (2011, p. 66). The company’s preferred method of influencing results was to use “quality raters” to evaluate the search results, to determine whether the algorithms needed to be changed, and by 2009 registered Google users were able to add or delete sites from search results in order to improve this quality feedback loop (ibid).

Censorship in China

Google’s approach towards Chinese internet speech laws has been slightly different. Relations with the Chinese government began poorly. Google went into the national market with little political and cultural awareness, and no development of its relationship with the government, knowing only that this market was to big to ignore. It was a late arrival, with Yahoo! already having opened offices in Bejing by the time Google started offering search results in Chinese in 2000. The company’s name was also probelmatic for the Chinese market, as it sounded too much like “Gou-gou” meaning “dog-dog”, an unfortunate cultural faux-pas (Levy, 2011, p. 287). While Google did gain some popularity in China, it then became a target for the Great Firewall—the Chinese government’s censorship technology—and the search engine suddenly became inaccessible in 2002 (Levy, 2011). After the company hurriedly began diplomatic overtures towards the Chinese government, access was resumed. Two years later, the company still had not developed good relationships with the government, but was exploring the possibility of setting up an office in China, although obtaining a license to operate would mean restricting search results according to the government’s liking (ibid). When it finally launched in 2006, it used algorithms to produce the same censored results as competitors like Chinese search engine Baidu, and in a somewhat conciliatory gesture, posted a notice on the search results page indicating that it had been censored according to Chinese law (ibid).

Many Americans were unimpressed at this apparent shift away from Google’s “don’t be evil” motto, which provided critics with an easy target. At a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Operations in 2006, congressman Tom Lantos—the only Holocaust survivor in Congress—lambasted representatives from Google, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, and Yahoo! for their various concessions to China, comparing these actions to the work of certain companies in aiding the Nazis (Nocera, 2006, para. 2). The New York Times covered the incident:

“Are you ashamed?” he thundered again in his thick Hungarian accent. Was Cisco ashamed of selling networking equipment to the Chinese police? Was Microsoft ashamed of taking down a blog because the government disapproved of its content? Was Yahoo ashamed of turning over data that led to the arrest and imprisonment of Shi Tao, a journalist who had used an anonymous Yahoo e-mail account to leak a government memo to the foreign media? Was Google — yes, “don’t be evil” Google — ashamed of setting up a Chinese search engine that filtered out Web sites that the government wanted blocked, sites that used such forbidden words as “democracy?”

Every time the companies tried to mouth the party line — that the Chinese people were better off for them being there than not; that under the terms of their license, they had no choice but to comply with Chinese law; that banned information had a way of leaking through the filters — Mr. Lantos cut them off. “Yes or no. Are you proud of it or ashamed of it?” he asked. There was, of course, no good answer to the question, so the four witnesses were left stumbling and stuttering their way through the humiliation. (Nocera, 2006, para. 3-4)

However despite Google’s attempts to appease the Chinese government, they still clashed repeatedly. In 2009 Google was accused of suggesting “obscene” results for the combination of terms like “mother” and “son”, leading to the temporary blocking of the search engine (Stone and Xin, 2010, p. 402). But there is a clear difference in the type of restrictions that are being placed on China’s internet in terms of their intentions. Chinese officials often use ‘obscene content’ as an excuse to shut down access, as outlined above. But when it comes to academic research and the need for access to information the government is keen to promote the country’s best interests. As Stone and Xin note, “realizing that innovation requires freedom to explore new ideas, censors are not deaf to pleas from the academic community. When researchers recently complained about some pages of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Website being blocked, according to an official with the China Education and Research Network, a national academic network under the education ministry, access was restored” (ibid, p. 403). In simply blocking Google sites, researchers lose access to Gmail, Google Scholar, and Google Earth, but there are other sites such as PubMed that can compensate for this loss (ibid, p. 402).

The problem with Google is that “undesirable” or destabilizing content makes up the lion’s share of what it provides, and it’s also the content through which Google makes money; all that user-generated content, mostly in English, often from the U.S. or at least the West, the content that goes viral, content that depends on freedom of speech and the ability to express ideas that may run counter to government ideals. This is the content that the Chinese government doesn’t want, and that the academic/research community doesn’t necessarily need. Google therefore really doesn’t have much of a pull with the support of the Chinese government; Google doesn’t have the same kind of leverage that it does in the U.S. because the service it provides doesn’t have much obvious benefit to the Chinese government. Meanwhile the Chinese search engine Baidu is by far the most popular choice in China, and dominates the market, calling further into question the benefits of Google’s decision to stay and have its service be subject to the whims of the Chinese government.

However Google was lacking the leverage to resist Chinese government demands without U.S. backing. Comparing the Chinese case to that of South African apartheid in the 1970s, Nocera explains that a number of companies operating in South Africa began adopting voluntary antidiscrimination guidelines, but finally pulled out of the country altogether after Congress imposed economic sanctions (ibid, para. x). As Representative Smith of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Operations stated, while the voluntary measures were helpful, “what changed South Africa more than anything were the sanctions” (ibid, para. x).

To examine the reason for the unwillingness of the U.S. government to impose sanctions on China, even as it criticized companies who enabled Chinese oppression, a brief overview of the history of U.S. relations with China is necessary.

U.S.-Chinese Relations

In the 1970s and 80s, some attempts were made to open up China to foreign trade and investment, however it wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991 that a concerted effort was made. The fall of Communism in Europe demonstrated that China must provide its people with a rising standard of living in order for the socialist government to secure its survival (Bremmer, 2010). In order to create this economic growth China needed access to the consumer markets of the U.S., the E.U., and Japan; developing trade relationships with the more volatile states in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East was seen to be too great a risk. China provided low cost labour for U.S. companies, and learned from U.S. management and marketing techniques as well as new technologies, while the U.S. targeted the market of China’s growing middle class (ibid).

However in recent years there has been a pushback from China against what it sees as Washington’s interference in its affairs, resulting from a change in thinking about the benefits of its partnership with the U.S. China recovered quickly from the recent financial crisis, whereas the U.S. did not, highlighting the success of China’s economic model and the fact that it may not actually need the U.S. The impact of the financial crisis on the U.S. also resulted in the loss of jobs within China as factories producing goods for export were forced to close, indicating that the U.S. may in fact be a liability for the Chinese economy, and prompting the Chinese government to shift its focus and concentrate on catering to consumer markets at home (ibid). As a result, “the Chinese leadership no longer believes that American power is as indispensable as it once was for either China’s economic expansion or the Communist party’s political survival” (ibid, para. 4). Bremmer suggests that the developing conflict between China and the U.S. is more dangerous than the Cold War, as “[e]conomic decision-making in Moscow had little impact on western power or standards of living. But globalisation means there is no equivalent to the Berlin wall, insulating China and American from turmoil inside the other” (ibid, para. 7).

Therefore the attacks on Google’s infrastructure and the renewed tensions between China and the search engine giant must be understood in the context of larger geopolitical and economic shifts. Bremmer suggests that cyber-espionage (stealing information to enable technological advancement, as in the Google case) has long been a tactic of China towards U.S. organizations. In addition, technology companies in the U.S. and Europe “charge that China’s policy of favouring products made with domestically created intellectual property proves that Beijing is no longer even pretending to observe international intellectual property rules” (ibid, para. 18).

The conflict between Google and China over these cyber-attacks cannot be understood simply as an issue of censorship, or persecution of dissidents, although framing the conflict in this way allows Google to stand by its motto of ‘do no evil’, and the U.S. to challenge Chinese policies through its position as self-proclaimed defender of the free world. However it is clear that these efforts align with economic goals, as China’s attempts at reducing its dependance on U.S. companies and instead promoting Chinese organizations are reflected in its preference for Chinese search engine Baidu, Google’s main Chinese rival.


Bremmer (2010, March 22). “China vs America: fight of the century” in Prospect Magazine, Issue 169

Levy (2011). In the Plex: How Google thinks, works, and shapes our lives. Simon and Schuster

Geist (2002) Internet Law in Canada. 3rd Edition, Ontario: Captus Press

Nocera (2006, February 18). “Enough Shame to Go Around on China” in New York Times

Stone and Xin (2010, 22 January). Science, VOL 327. Accessed on October 4, 2011 at http://www.sciencemag.org

Vaidhyanathan (2011). The Googlization of Everything. Berkely: University of California Press

Explorations in Disasporic Identity

A colleague spoke a few days ago on the pitfalls of ethnography, commenting on the complicated relationship between researcher and subjects, and how that was further muddied by the fact that he has family in the area in which he was conducting research, and he is part of a disapora in Canada, but he was read as white, and as North American by many of the people he met.

Following this I began thinking about my own identity as a white British national living in Canada, and how I am read by people here and people at home. As I am not a cultural studies scholar I find that I am often lacking the language to describe my own experience. I spoke to another colleague whose work focuses on issues of citizenship, diaspora, and identity, and asked if she had any texts she could recommend that might get me started in understanding the theory through which I could understand my experience. However she mostly focuses on ethnic groups with visible identities–mostly the South Asian diaspora–and the white foreign national experience is quite different. We are not visibly identifiable–either to outsiders or as we look for other Brits. Recognition of identity comes with speech, as our accents give us away. Accents are so important in British culture, as they denote class, geographical locatedness, and culture. But what happens when your accent starts to fade?

This is the position in which I now find myself. I have lived in Canada for six years, and my accent has faded to the point that other British nationals in Canada do not identify me as British, and I am most often identified as Australian. I am not a citizen of Canada, nor yet a permanent resident, so my status here is temporary. Yet, when I go home, friends comment that my accent has changed, and strangers find it hard to place me. I am out of touch with the culture, the news, the politics. I do not share in the daily goings on that ground a person in a culture. I have that affinity with Vancouver, but I cannot vote here, and my accent constantly identifies me as an outsider. I am not part of a diaspora- while I know there are British expats here, and I have British friends, we do not form a community based on that identity.

I have really begun to question my identity as I have found myself reacting to others who claim a British identity. One friend identifies as British, but has never lived in the UK. She has British parents and British citizenship, but she grew up in Canada. She does not have the cultural knowledge that someone who grows up in the UK would have. She does not visit often enough to keep her cultural knowledge up to date. However if she was South Asian, I would not think to question her identity as part of a disapora. Another friend was born in the UK to British parents, and lived there for the first six years of his life, but then moved to Canada and grew up playing hockey and speaking with a Canadian accent. Are those six years enough to instill an understanding of British culture in him? Does he feel that the UK is home? Another acquaintance spent his first 14 years in the UK, but then lived in the US, and now returns to the UK in his 60s and does not recognize the place upon which he built his identity. He understands himself as British, and speaks with a strongly identifiable accent, but he feels lost in London, with no idea where to go or where things are located. Complicating this, he is a visible minority, as his mother was Indian and his father Israeli, so he is read as other by both Brits and Americans alike.

If I become a permanent resident of Canada, and perhaps later a citizen, I could spend my life in this country. Would I then be a Canadian? Would people ever stop identifying me as an outsider because of how I speak? Would I still have a British identity, if I lived in Canada for longer than I ever lived in the UK? I have been away for six years, visiting at least once or twice a year. And yet already I understand that I am lacking in the knowledge of the daily goings on that makes my hometown ‘home’. Can I still live in Canada and call myself British, as I lose that cultural connectedness? What then makes me different to any of my friends who claim a British identity that I question?

(Un)Lawful Access

Last week, Openmedia.ca hosted the Vancouver premier of New Transparency documentary, (Un)Lawful Access, in which surveillance, security, and privacy experts comment on the Lawful Access legislation which looks set to be reintroduced in Canada for the umpteenth time. Lawful Access legislation expands the ability for law enforcement to obtain access to the huge amounts of meta-data about our digital activities, with precious little oversight, and little justification.

The BC Civil Liberties Association’s report  on the legislation reveals that, without a warrant, police can request the “name, address, telephone number and electronic mail address of any subscriber to any of the service provider’s telecommunications services and the Internet protocol address, mobile identification number, electronic serial number, local service provider identifier, international mobile equipment identity number and subscriber identity module card number that are associated with the subscriber’s service and equipment” (p. 33).

This report is the most comprehensive assessment of the new legislation and its privacy impacts, and it was released after the screening. Following a panel discussion which was at times both highly entertaining in the incongruity of government justifications, and deeply concerning due to their apparent acceptance,  the report flew off the table. Presenting and participating in the discussion were BCCLA Policy Director Micheal Vonn, BC Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth DenhamChris Parsons, contributor to the BCCLA’s report “Moving Toward a Surveillance Society – Proposals to Expand “Lawful Access” in Canada”, and documentary producer Kate Milberry. The panellists did a great job of getting across just how widely this legislation casts the surveillance net, how unnecessary it is, and who the real people of interest are- as Micheal Vonn noted, some of the most large-scale surveillance operations in Canada to date have been targeted at protesters (notably the G20 protests in Toronto), environmentalists, First Nations activists, and civil liberties advocates. It was not lost on anyone in the room that just by attending that event, under this new legislation we may have been made targets. Therefore this legislation would not only result in a loss of privacy but a dramatic chilling of free speech.

This must be understood as part of a global shift- Canada is certainly not the first nation to try to legislate such widespread and unbridled surveillance. Nations such as China with its ‘Great Firewall’ are well known for attempting to maintain strict control of new media; and nations experiencing political and social unrest, such as Egypt, Syria, and Iran, experienced digital media blackouts in an attempt to quell protest and uprising. However similar levels of surveillance are aspired to even in democratic societies. Our neighbours in the U.S. have long been subjected high levels of both legal surveillance through legislation like the Patriot Act and even the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, as well as illegal as the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal demonstrated.

The UK also has high levels of citizen surveillance, however there are much stronger methods of oversight built into these programs. While the levels of surveillance being proposed in Canada are of course extremely concerning, it’s the lack of oversight that really exacerbates this problem. As Nathalie Des Rosiers notes in the (Un)Lawful Access documentary, warrants are a good thing, they keep us honest. Without a way to hold law enforcement accountable, the potential for abuse (and the temptation towards it) is far too great.

Of course, law enforcement should have access to all the information it needs in order to uphold the law and to protect the public, but they must do so without unnecessarily infringing on citizens’ civil liberties, and we have yet to see evidence of the necessity for these new powers. Privacy is not an opposite to security; both are necessary in a democracy.

Social Media Access and the London Riots

Just a quick post, as I caught this while browsing the UK riot coverage this morning. The BBC is reporting that British parliament is thinking about whether it would be “right and possible” to limit access to social media during times of unrest. Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberry Messenger have been cited as major influences on the rioters’ ability to organize, and apparently Home Secretary Theresa May is meeting representatives from each of these companies to talk about their “obligations during times of unrest”. Given the role of social media in the recent Arab Spring uprisings, and the attempts by government to shut down access as a result, such suggestions from British Prime Minister David Cameron are obviously concerning.

Rights campaigner Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group is quoted in the article making some important points:

Who would decide whether texts or tweets constituted an incitement to disorder? If not the courts, then there could be abuses by private companies and police. He also pointed out that “[a]ny government policy to shut down networks deprived citizens of a right to secure communication and undermined the privacy required by a society that valued free speech”.

Given that the government was firm that the army would not be brought in to deal with rioters, the lack of use of water cannons and rubber bullets, and the fact that David Cameron has also stood by proposed cuts to the number of police officers in London, is there some likelihood that the warnings of rights activists will be heeded? Given how surveillance-heavy the UK is, I am not so sure. However, so long as the length and spread of the riots is being blamed on police tactics, perhaps discussions of restrictions to social media access will not receive too much attention?

This is what academic Myriam Dunn Cavelty terms a “policy window”- an event which creates an opportunity through which ‘security professionals’ can gain attention and support for their security arguments, framing the event in a specific way, and prompting certain security responses. It will be important to watch and see which players with their various motivations capitalize on this opportunity to advance their own cause.

EDIT: And there it is- China takes the UK’s discussion of social media censorship as validation of its own Great Firewall. You can’t expect to hold the moral upper hand and chastise China’s tactics to promote social solidarity and then go ahead and do it yourself. It doesn’t matter if you argue how ‘different’ each situation is. Really it’s just a matter of degree, and the perhaps small likelihood that the UK will have oversight which will discourage abuse of these powers.

Stop Online Spying

Proposed surveillance powers will have reduced warrant requirements, potentially introduce vulnerabilites, and cost ISPs who will pass that cost on to consumers

I went to a really interesting forum a couple weeks ago at Simon Fraser University called ‘Stop Online Spying’, organized by the Open Media group and apparently spearheaded by Michael Markwick, who brought along one of his undergraduate classes. It was focused around the Internet surveillance or ‘lawful access’ components of Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper’s crime omnibus bill, which is set to pass in the first 100 days after his reelection. A coalition of advocacy groups and professors have written an open letter to Harper, outlining their objections to the bill, which can be found here.

There were a few familiar faces- Micheal Vonn of the BC Civil Liberties Association, who is always refreshingly straightforward and forthright in her analysis of surveillance law and its implications. She explained how police already had many of the powers that this bill provides, and in fact the bill simply reduces oversight and increases the potential for the abuse of these powers.

A few of the folks from the OpenMedia group presented- this organization was largely responsible for publicizing and organizing against the proposed usage-based billing in Canada. There was also a guy called Christopher Parsons, a PhD at UVic, who I feel like I probably saw at the Cyber-Surveillance in Everyday Life conference at U of T. He made some really insightful comments on the difference between public and private data, and the importance of ‘meta data’ or ‘traffic data’- the major loophole in electronic communication privacy law.

One really interesting aspect of the forum was a presentation outlining the history of the lawful access bill, which didn’t come from no where, but is just the latest form of a number of previous bills that have been reframed over and over again throughout the years (the presentation was by either Vincent Gogolek of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, or Steve Anderson of Open Media, I cannot recall). This is one of the main points raised in the coalition’s open letter, mentioned above.

It was great to have the opportunity to attend a discussion of Internet surveillance issues that was held close to home, as many of these forums are held in Ontario. It was also nice to hear some of the bright-eyed optimism of some of the undergrads in attendance- events populated by those in the surveillance studies field can often be quite cynical affairs! But this is definitely an issue with the potential to capture the minds of the younger generation, if they are given the opportunity to get to grips with the facts and their implications. This was a great opportunity for them to do just that.