The Liberals promised to reform Bill C-51. What happened?

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The Liberal Party of Canada came to power in October of 2015 with a very significant promise in their platform: to reform the notorious spying bill known as Bill C-51

Presented as anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51 was introduced and rammed through by the previous Conservative government. It handed sweeping and dangerous new powers to Canada's spy and security agencies. 

These powers, which included allowing spy agencies to install spyware on your computer, allowing government institutions to share sensitive health and financial information about you with numerous federal agencies, and permitting spy agencies to disrupt communication platforms and take down websites, were roundly criticized by privacy experts and wildly unpopular amongst people in Canada. 

So when the Liberals promised reform, the community watching was large, outspoken and ready to hold them to account.

The process of reform started with a Canada-wide consultation, and this was where the first warning signs that this so-called reform wouldn't live up to what was promised appeared. 

The in-person consultations were called "utterly demoralizing," while the online consultations were critiqued by experts for biased and leading questions. Despite receiving over 68,000 comments, the government was reluctant to release the actual responses they received. And when they did, it was clear why: the report showed that a vast majority of people in Canada have significant concerns regarding privacy and government accountability with sensitive data, and wanted C-51 to be completely repealed.

The long-awaited reform bill, Bill C-59, was announced in June 2019. 

And sadly, the fears that many had about the bill appeared to be realized: instead of fully repealing C-51 or making much-needed key reforms, C-59 just tinkered at the margins while introducing a host of new problems.

While some much-needed improvements were included, it failed to adequately address the information disclosure provisions and terrorist speech offences brought in by Bill C-51. It also brought in new data collection, cybersecurity and mass surveillance powers which further threaten our privacy and security.

Outraged by the broken promises and lack of promised action, thousands upon thousands of people in Canada contacted their MPs, signed petitions and supported calls to fix the bill as it progressed through Parliament and the Senate. 

Despite that, all the Liberal motions were adopted, virtually all Opposition motions were defeated, very little of substance was changed in the bill, and virtually no human rights protections were added.

In June 2019, C-59 was passed and received royal assent -- almost four years to the day after its predecessor. 

The big question: what changes were actually made?

There were some significant and hard-won victories in Bill C-59, even though many didn't go far enough. These include things like information-sharing provisions being narrowed (though they remain far too broad), the creation of the new National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, and a redress system for people mistakenly caught up in Canada's no-fly list. 

But unfortunately many key issues remained unresolved, and C-59 even added in frightening new anti-privacy measures. The most worrying of these include new mass surveillance powers for Communications Security Establishment (CSE), as well as new hacking powers and near-limitless powers to collect data on people in Canada. 

It's a saddening failure of the government that they stopped far short of their commitment to truly listen to people in Canada and stop the outrageous privacy violations that they promised to fix.

But it doesn't stop here. 

2019 is an election year, and a critical time when every party and politician looking to get elected cannot ignore the voices of their constituents. As the election draws near, it's time to put a stake in the ground on the issues that matter most to you. If you're concerned about mass surveillance in Canada and the government's failure to protect its citizens' rights -- use your voice to make this an election issue.

Victoria Henry is a Campaigner at OpenMedia, a community-based organization that works to keep the internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free.

Image: OpenMedia

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