Canadians have been told to expect a lot of changes from a Liberal majority government, including a few promises to increase privacy protections.
First off, for those who are less familiar with Canadian federal politics, like the US., there are two parties that take turns governing: the Liberals—slightly left of centre—and the Conservatives—slightly right of centre. Sitting further to the left is the NPD, which has never won at the federal level—although the party finished second and became the official opposition for the first time in the 2011 election.
Where Canada differs from the U.S. is that the two parties tend to overlap more in ideology and approach than the Democrats and Republicans. To the extent that there are stronger left and right leaning tendencies in either party, they are moderated as each party moves to the center, as Canadians generally prefer not to veer far from the middle of the road. That being said, the outgoing Conservative government will likely be remembered as one of the most ideological and partisan in Canadian history, even if significant compromises were required along the way—six straight deficits hardly fits with the conservative ethos.
The Harper Conservative government was commonly accused of attacking privacy rights. This comes with the territory for a government dedicated to strict, tough-on-crime measures to punish criminals and deal with terrorism—many of which were redundant and/or declared unconstitutional. Former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews famously quipped in the House of Commons that anyone who questioned the need for law enforcement access to telecommunications service providers’ (TSP) subscriber data without judicial oversight “can either stand with us or the child pornographers.” This comment was a blessing in disguise, however, as it galvanized enough outrage and concern that this most controversial aspect of lawful access legislation was removed before being passed.
More recently, the Harper election campaign went to a very strange place with the promise to set up a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline. Yes, this is as it sounds: The government would encourage Canadians to snitch on fellow citizens of a particular skin colour and religion. We can only hope that those who voted in favour of the Conservatives did so despite, and not because of, this promise.
In the private sector, the Harper government did make some long overdue reforms to the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA)—though it took nine years—while at the same time passing Canada’s anti-spam legislation. It was interesting to see a Conservative government that talked a lot about smaller government go forward with one of the most stringent and controversial regulatory acts we’ve ever seen.
We might expect the Liberals to be stronger champions of privacy overall.
It was under Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms became a reality in the early 80s, which provides citizens with the fundamental freedom from unreasonable search and seizure (the most important protection against privacy violations by the state). It was also a Liberal government that had the foresight back in the late 90s to develop federal private-sector privacy legislation as part of a broader strategy to foster trust and confidence in e-commerce.
Looking forward, the Liberals have made a few privacy-related promises. Most significantly, they have pledged to create a multi-party, joint House of Commons and Senate Committee that would oversee all departments and agencies with national security-related responsibilities. They’ve also promised to make it easier for Canadians to access information about themselves and about government through amendments to the Privacy Act and Access to Information Act.
Of course, promises to increase transparency and accountability are a standard component of any election platform, and almost always forgotten once a party comes to power. It’s also important to remember that the Liberals supported the Harper government’s passage of lawful access legislation not long ago, once it had been altered to remove warrantless access to TSP subscriber data—a move that attracted some criticism. In fact, it was the Liberals, and not the Conservatives, who started the push for lawful access legislation back in the late 90’s.
So we should skeptical of privacy-related promises.
However, if there is any reason to believe that the Liberals will follow through, it’s that the promises that they have made are relatively modest ones. On a more fundamental level, Justin Trudeau has told us that he and his government will listen to bureaucrats and stakeholders, and consider facts and evidence in making policy-related decisions. Let’s hope that at least this is the truth.
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