As Canada Seemingly Heads Towards Election, No Clear Voice in Ottawa for Digital Rights

Bill C-10 has put Canada in uncharted territories in more ways than one. One aspect is the fact that no party is a champion for digital rights.

Since at least 2005, Canada has had at least one party to stand up for digital rights. Typically, this voice came from the NDP. They railed against both Liberal and Conservative governments for pushing through Canadian DMCA legislation and mass dragnet surveillance for years. In more recent years, the Green Party also joined in, lending support for digital rights along the way.

In so many ways, this is. politically, a natural fit. The NDP, with their strong roots in the labour movement, generally fits nicely with digital rights. Meanwhile, the Green Party, with their roots in protesting for change on issues surrounding the environment, would also naturally align with the digital rights movement. Mass surveillance would politically be bad news for both of their respective movements. In fact, the Green Party felt the heat from a growing Pirate Party movement back in 2009 when their leader commented how the party was not needed because Canada has the Green Party.

With the Pirate Party slipping away, the question of who to vote for if you care about digital rights has always been a no-brainer. You can either vote for the NDP or Green Party. Both are great candidates for defending digital rights at Canada’s federal level. At least, that was the thinking for nearly 15 years.

All that seemingly changed with the introduction of Bill C-10. Both the NDP and Green Party voted against protecting user generated content three times. Both parties also voted to pass Bill C-10 at the House of Commons level. It was a stunning betrayal that has left digital rights advocates dismayed and disappointed. In one bill, nearly 15 years had been reversed with both the Green Party and NDP falling over each other to kill free speech. Even today, the move makes no sense given that both parties rely so heavily on freedom of expression. What changed to make both parties sudden adversaries of freedom of expression? Honestly, we don’t have an answer for that.

A lot of people new to these debates about free speech find it attractive to simply associate the push for free speech with the Conservative party. This largely after the absolute chaos that went down in the US with impeached former US president, Donald Trump, demanding free speech for himself as a license to say anything without consequence. So, just assume that the Conservative party is like that as well and assume that the source of the controversy is also from the conservative movement. If you want long time digital rights advocates to think, “Yeah, you’re clearly new here”, that is probably the fastest ticket to get expert observers to think that of you.

The reality is that Conservatives have a long deep past of being very anti-consumer – this especially in the realm of digital rights. Some of us long time reporters, along with digital rights experts and organizations, remember what went down during the disastrous Harper years. One aspect is the tabling of the Canadian DMCA – then dubbed Bill C-61. At the time, it drew significant controversy because it brings in the worst aspects of American style copyright laws.

On the leadup to the Canadian DMCA, one quote stood out from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). When the office was asked about how to handle the copyright file, the PMO run by Stephen Harper famously replied, “we don’t care what you do, as long as the U.S. is satisfied.” So, unsurprisingly, the Canadian DMCA was chock full of provisions aimed at satisfying the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America).

Among other things, the legislation would have legalized the notorious Sony/Suncomm rootkit DRM. It would have also introduced laws that penalized alleged copyright infringers up to $20,000 per infringement. So, if you are accused of sharing hundreds of songs, you could technically be on the hook for millions. It also would have shoehorned in the bad provisions found in the now defunct and notorious ACTA international trade agreement. Indeed, the Conservative party of Canada was practically chomping at the bit to screw over ordinary Canadians.

What was also notorious about the legislation at the time was the handling of the legislation. Jim Prentice (yes, the same guy that was so bad as a politician, he lost an election as Alberta’s premier as a Conservative) was the main point person pushing this legislation throughout. The mishandling of the legislation was noteworthy in and of itself. On the lead up to the tabling of the legislation, the speculation had Canadians swarming his riding to find out if the rumours were true. He hit back saying that it was a bad idea to speculate on legislation that hasn’t been tabled and that Canadians should wait for the bill to be tabled. After the bill was tabled, Canadians were horrified to find out that the bill was worse than thought. Prentice responded by basically saying that the time for debate was over and that now is the time to just pass it. No surprise that there were mass protests and letter writing campaigns at the time.

In one famous interview, a small radio journalist decided to get an interview with the Minister. When the Minister was asked about bringing DVD’s from other countries, or any aspect that could run afoul for the legislation for that matter, the responses were all him saying that the question is “really technical”. Half way through the interview, the minister hung up on the interviewer with the famous dial tone ending the Interview.

Of course, the mishandling of digital rights was not exclusive to one minister at the time. Lawful access was also part of the digital rights debate at the time. At the time, it was known as Bill C-30 and was handled by Vic Toews. During a round of questioning in government, Toews was asked about the legislation and he responded by famously saying that you “either stand with us or with the child pornographers”. The controversy exploded back then because of those comments and, ultimately, Toews stepped back those comments.

At one point, internal documents revealed that there was even an idea floating around of using the gruesome Lucca Magnotta case to push Lawful Access. This despite the connection between the case and the debate being highly questionable.

Canadians, of course, responded to oppose the legislation in droves. Petitions were signed and the bill was ultimately defeated.

What was so striking in both the copyright and surveillance debates is how much both pieces of legislation were effectively copied from the Liberals bills. It painted a picture that Conservatives offer little difference from the Liberals on this front.

Probably the only real silver lining, if there was any at all to be had at the time, was the fact that the copyright legislation was ultimately watered down. It was basically a case of throwing darts at a dartboard of what both sides wanted and that was put into the legislation afterwards. Newer copyright legislation that was passed capped the penalties for copyright infringement to a level that was actually quite reasonable. The foreign copyright lobby was furious because they couldn’t turn ordinary Canadians into walking ATM’s. On the flip side, the Conservatives also added anti-circumvention legislation. This upset digital rights because any leniency on copyright would have been overruled if a DRM was put in place.

The response to both sides was that everyone had a little “water in their wine” and left the legislation as-is. So, credit where credit is due, that did happen… if that’s really any consolation at all.

So, if you look at the history of what the Conservatives actually did the last time they were in power, it paints an extremely grim picture. It was clear they didn’t work for Canadians. Instead, they worked for big oil and the United States corporate elite.

So, for readers, if you kind of half wonder why long time digital rights reporters aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to throw their support behind the Conservative Party of Canada, the above should provide a number of big reasons why. Some of us actually remember what happened last time and know the potential implications this time around. Politically speaking, the likelihood that the party is going to be elected this year is already pretty slim. It would be a stunning upset if the Conservatives were successfully elected should an election were held this year. The real question at this stage is whether the Liberals will get another minority or, heaven forbid, a majority government.

Of course, with the NDP and Green Party both seemingly turning their backs on digital rights thanks to their support for Bill C-10. The question is, who should you vote for if you care about digital rights? Depressingly, the answer is this: there is no federal political party that we are aware of that can be trusted with these issues. We’ve never seen this before in Canadian politics and it is why we published an editorial on the case for the Canadian Pirate Party. Canadians need a voice in Ottawa that they know will stand up for digital rights. The way things are going, Canadians are not going to get that voice.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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