Our last, best chance to restore our rights and repeal Bill C-51

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This is it, folks. Eighteen months after it was first introduced, and over a year since it was forced through Parliament by the Harper government, Canadians will soon have a chance to finally overturn Bill C-51.

In June, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale promised to consult Canadians on the bill, a public engagement exercise that he pledged would "probably be the most extensive the government of the country has ever seen."

At the time of writing, we can practically see this consultation coming down the pike -- and there's no doubt that it can't come soon enough for the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who have been outspoken in their opposition to this reckless legislation.

After all, Bill C-51 represents one of the most dangerous assaults on Canadians' basic rights that this country has ever seen. It turns the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) into what The Globe and Mail described as a "secret police force," with little oversight or accountability. It opens the door for violations of our Charter Rights, including, as Margaret Atwood and over 450 artists and creators have warned, our right to free speech and free expression. And it empowers spy agencies to conduct dragnet surveillance and information sharing on innocent citizens, prompting strong criticism from the Privacy Commissioner that all Canadians will be "caught in this web."

It's clear, too, that spy agencies are already exploiting the sweeping new powers bestowed upon them by Bill C-51. As Jim Bronskill of the Canadian Press wrote earlier this year, at least four federal agencies, including CSIS, are already using the legislation to gain access to Canadians' private information. And CSIS head Michel Coulombe recently told parliamentarians that his agency has already used C-51's extraordinary "disruption" powers over two dozen times without seeking judicial approval.

Against this backdrop, it's no wonder that Canadians are growing impatient at the lack of action from the government to date. Writing in iPolitics, columnist Michael Harris points out that the Liberals promised last October that C-51 would be "overhauled without delay," and calls on "Team Trudeau to get going on the hearings." Amnesty International's Alex Neve is also keen to get moving, telling Ottawa Citizen readers that "as long as C-51 remains untouched, so too do its many human rights shortcomings."

Unsurprisingly, our team here at OpenMedia is chomping at the bit to get cracking on the work of repealing the bill. It's clear that the government's soon-to-be-announced consultation represents our last, best chance to restore our rights and finally get this odious legislation overturned -- and we'll be pulling out all the stops to encourage as many people as possible to make their voices heard.

In fact, it's remarkable the impact that everyday citizens speaking out has already had on the trajectory of this debate. When the Harper government first introduced Bill C-51, very few would have foreseen that it would become one of the most controversial issues in the federal election campaign 10 months later, or that it would have spurred a movement of dozens of organizations and over 300,000 people, in what rapidly became one of the largest engagement campaigns in Canadian history.

Looking back, it seems clear that Bill C-51 crystallized broader privacy concerns that had been growing over many years, as Canadians watched aghast as revelation after revelation appeared about the activities of the government's spy agencies, not least of which were the many documents revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

While there's no doubt that Bill C-51 is top of mind for many Canadians right now, the government's consultation will also likely cover many other crucial and pressing privacy issues, such as spy agency accountability, warrantless surveillance, attempts to undermine encryption, and the use of Stingray spying devices, recently revealed to have been deployed by the RCMP over more than a decade.

As outlined in the crowdsourced, pro-privacy action plan we launched last year with the help of over 100,000 Canadians, Bill C-51, while crucially important, is but one piece of a larger puzzle that we'll need to solve if we are to put into practice the fundamental privacy safeguards that all Canadians deserve.

We've already seen some modest progress from the government on the accountability front, although a huge amount remains to be done. And, if there's one thing that's certain, it's that we'll need to really hold the government's feet to the fire and make clear where Canadians stand if we're to deliver the lasting changes we need.

In short, it's going to be an exciting, and crucial, few months ahead for our privacy, and we'll need all hands on deck to make this work. Keep in touch with the latest at OpenMedia.org, and by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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