Despite flaws, the government's consultation finally gives us a real chance to repeal Bill C-51

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It's here. Almost a year into their mandate, the Liberal government has finally launched its long-awaited public consultation on Bill C-51, and a broad range of privacy and national security issues.

Speaking at the launch, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said they had already identified a limited number of areas of Bill C-51 they wanted changed, and that they wanted to get Canadians' views on how to deal with the rest of the unpopular legislation.

Bill C-51, readers may recall, is the highly controversial spying bill forced through Parliament by the previous Conservative federal government. Notably, the legislation turns the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) into what The Globe and Mail have called a "secret police force," with little independent oversight or accountability.

Bill C-51 also opens the door for violations of our Charter rights, including censorship of free expression online, a point made by Margaret Atwood and hundreds of other Canadian writers, artists and creators in an open letter last year. The bill also empowers government agencies to engage in the kind of dragnet mass surveillance and information sharing on innocent Canadians that many top security experts warn is counterproductive.

Of course, Canadians didn't take this lying down. Over 300,000 people signed a petition calling for the complete repeal of Bill C-51, and street protests took place across the country. It's clear that the appetite for change from citizens extends far beyond the limited number of areas identified by Ministers Goodale and Wilson-Raybould -- Canadians want the legislation completely overturned, and won't be satisfied with mere tinkering around the edges.

That's what makes it all the more concerning to see the government release a Green Paper for the consultation that focuses entirely on the concerns of police rather than the needs of Canadians.

Although this Green Paper purports to explain the key issues, it's so one-sided that Micheal Vonn, policy director at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, writes that "in the main, it reads like it was drafted by a public relations firm tasked with selling the current state of extraordinary, unaccountable powers and if anything, laying the groundwork for extending those even further."

There are multiple examples of this bias, on issues ranging from encryption, to data retention, and expansion of CSIS powers. That means that civil society groups are going to need to work hard to set the record straight, and ensure Canadians have the facts needed to make an informed contribution. These issues are far too important to allow them to be defined in a way that ignores the profound public concerns about the impact of Bill C-51 and mass surveillance on the health of our democracy.

That said, this consultation is our best chance to get Bill C-51 repealed and ensure strong privacy rules to keep us safe. It's essential that as many Canadians as possible take part. The more who participate, the more likely it is that we can secure the changes we need.

An expert report published recently by Citizen Lab and the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic lends further impetus to the need for change. The report revealed the potential extent to which the government is using invasive "Stingray" tools to conduct mass surveillance of our cell phone communications. That's just one example of the type of invasive spying practices that will only get worse if Canadians stay silent.
At OpenMedia, we're working on a consultation tool to facilitate participation from as many Canadians as possible. In the meantime, we're asking everyone to send the government a clear message to repeal Bill C-51 and restore our privacy safeguards at https://act.openmedia.org/security

David Christopher is communications manager for OpenMedia, which works to keep the Internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free.

Photo: Kent Lins/flickr

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