Stephen Harper’s Conservative government represents a “lost 10 years” for the Internet in Canada, according to a digital-rights advocate.
“Canada has just fallen so far behind now in terms of price, for one thing, and that applies to both wired, broadband Internet, and also cellphone service,” David Christopher, communications manager for the OpenMedia Engagement Network, said during an interview at the nonprofit’s office in downtown Vancouver. “But if I was to single out one area, it would definitely be privacy. I can’t think of really a single good thing that this government has done on privacy. We’ve really been going backwards.”
Seated next to OpenMedia managing director Alexa Pitoulis, Christopher told the Georgia Straight that the organization is working hard to make sure issues of Internet access, privacy, and free expression are “front and centre” in the October 19 federal election. OpenMedia, which has a staff of 16 and boasts about 500,000 active supporters, is calling it the “most important election Canadian Internet users have ever faced”.
On August 27, OpenMedia released its crowd-sourced “election platform”, a document laying out its positions on key Internet issues. For one thing, the nonprofit wants to see all Canadians have access to cheaper and faster Internet service and more choices when it comes to providers. It also recommends: “Copyright and other digital policies should promote access to knowledge and culture, enable online commerce, and prevent censorship.”
On the privacy front, OpenMedia’s platform calls on parliamentarians to “completely repeal Bill C-51, and forbid the government from spying on the private communications and activities of law-abiding residents of Canada, whether domestically or through international partners, without a warrant issued by an open court”. The Conservatives’ antiterrorism legislation, which received royal assent in June, grants new powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and is the subject of a charter challenge filed by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.
“There’s a real danger here that the Internet could also become a tool for mass surveillance, for government control—something that actually tilts the balance between the citizen and the state in a really worrying direction,” said Christopher, who lives in New Westminster. “We also see that in terms of copyright and freedom of expression. Big media conglomerates, especially in the States, are trying to use copyright law in all kinds of ways, not just in terms of stopping people from pirating things. It’s actually being used at times to censor free expression, to stifle sharing of information online.”
OpenMedia is urging Canadians to sign an online pledge stating that they “care about affordable access, free expression, and a surveillance-free Internet” and are committed to voting in the federal election. In mid-September, the organization plans to release a list of candidates who have endorsed its platform. That will be followed in late September by a “report card” rating the parties’ positions on digital-rights issues.
“We’re going to give every candidate the opportunity to declare themselves as a pro-Internet candidate—meaning that, if elected, they will do their utmost to drive forward these high-level policies in Parliament,” Christopher said.
Christopher stressed that OpenMedia won’t be recommending any parties or politicians, though he mentioned Green Leader Elizabeth May, the NDP’s Charmaine Borg, and Joyce Murray of the Liberals as examples of “strong voices” for a free and open Internet.
Bill C-51 passed through the House of Commons with the support of the Liberals, while the NDP, Greens, Bloc Québécois, and Forces et Démocratie opposed it. Christopher noted that the NDP and Greens have vowed to repeal C-51. He likened candidates’ positions on the legislation to a “litmus test” of their support for digital rights.
“I think C-51 has caused a huge division, a tension within the Liberal party, because their own grassroots supporters were just as much against this bill as were the supporters of, say, the Greens or the NDP, if you look at some of the polls,” Christopher said. “Yet to see their party leader—to see [Justin] Trudeau—backing something like this is astonishing but also disappointing, and I certainly think they’ll be held to account by voters. They’ve said they’ll bring forward reforms to the bill, but we haven’t seen them.”
According to Hedy Fry, the Liberal incumbent in Vancouver Centre, her party addressed civil-liberties concerns by amending Bill C-51.
“What was very interesting is that the NDP voted against those amendments, and yet they say they want to protect civil liberties,” Fry told the Straight at a Trudeau campaign event in Vancouver on August 19. “We brought in the amendments, and so you can march down the street tomorrow without having to worry, with a placard saying whatever you want to say.”
On August 26, Harper promised that if Canadians choose to keep the Conservatives in power, his government will spend $200 million to bring broadband infrastructure to rural and remote communities lacking high-speed Internet access.
Pitoulis told the Straight that the future of the Internet deserves to be a major election issue because it is “the critical tool to building a more democratic and collaborative world”. The Vancouver resident remarked that she hopes Bill C-51 and digital-rights issues motivate more young people to vote.
“The Internet is something that we shouldn’t take for granted,” Pitoulis said. “We need to act to have our democratic rights as citizens, to make sure it stays open, accessible, free for everyone.”