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Privacy could vanish if cyber-bullying act becomes law in Canada

PEN Canada voiced its concern at revelations that local telecom companies and other service providers disclosed personal information from nearly 800,000 customers in a single year, a practice that would be codified in two bills currently before Parliament.

The Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act (Bill C-13), currently being discussed at the Standing Committee for Justice and Human Rights, would provide telecom companies with criminal and civil immunity for disclosing subscriber information to government agencies. According to information published following an access to information request by University of Ottawa Law professor Michael Geist, in 2011, nine of Canada's major telecom providers and social media sites received 1.2 million data requests from government agencies. The companies complied in 784,756 cases. The total number of requests and disclosures from all telecom companies is likely higher.

“These figures give an idea of the government's unsettling predilection for surveillance,” said PEN Canada National Affairs Committee Chair William Kowalski. “If information has been volunteered this readily, then privacy would vanish if these practices became law.”

PEN Canada believes that the routine disclosure of user information in response to warrantless requests must not be normalized, and that the government must act to protect rather than undermine Charter Rights to privacy. Government agencies must provide proof that information requested is necessary and within appropriate limits. PEN also maintains that Canadians have the right to be told when their data is requested and that service providers must be required to notify them.

Like Bill C-13, the Digital Privacy Act (Bill S-4) is also a cause for concern. Introduced on April 8, the bill would allow internet service providers to share subscriber information with any organization that is investigating a possible breach of contract, including copyright violations, or illegal activities. These companies would be allowed to keep the sharing of data secret from the affected customers.

PEN Canada maintains that citizens have a right to privacy as declared by the United Nations and expressly guaranteed in section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that this right is inextricably linked to the right to freedom of expression as set out in section 2(b) of the Charter.

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