Sweeping Anti-Terrorism Bill Raises Civil Rights Concerns in Canada

Published: May 7, 2015 8:37 PM /


Canada Parliament

The controversial anti-terrorism bill, known as Bill C-51, was passed by the Canadian House of Commons, despite concerns raised by privacy and civil rights activists. Although it still has to go through the Senate to become a law, the Senate has been little more than a rubber-stamp body for decades. It is very unlikely that the Senate will fail to pass the bill.

The law contains provisions which would allow the government to order sites to remove any content that promotes or encourages terrorism.  This section of the law is reminiscent of a recent French law which also aimed to crackdown on websites promoting terrorism. Under Bill C-51 a court order would be required, something which civil rights activists pointed out was not required under the French law. This may actually be one of the least worrying sections of the bill. Although there is a possibility of this provision being abused, the fact that a court order is required to take down content will hopefully keep the government in check.

What is more disturbing is a section of the law which gives law enforcement agencies the power to arrest someone if they think a terrorist act "may be carried out". This is in contrast to the current law which allows a person to be arrested if a terrorist act "will be carried out". The implications of the single word change will be something the courts will have to grapple with, but it suggests a much lower standard for detaining suspected terrorists. Not only does the bill make it easier to detain suspects but it also increases the length of time they can be detained by authorities. Suspects who "may" commit acts of terrorism can have their passport revoked up to 5 years, or forced to undergo electronic surveillance.

Another major concern raised by groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is the information sharing between government agencies that this bill would allow. Under the Privacy Act, people can give personal information to the government for things such as filing taxes or healthcare, and they can be assured that the information they share will remain within the agency they shared it with and will not be used against them by law enforcement. The information sharing provisions of the bill would give Canadian intelligence and law enforcement agencies access to a wide range of personal information that is being held in confidence by other government agencies. Due to the large amount of intelligence sharing between Canada and other members of the five eyes, there is a very good reason to suspect this personal information will end up in the hands of foreign intelligence agencies like the NSA.

One of the most controversial sections of Bill C-51 gives the Canadian Security Intelligence Services the authority to "disrupt" suspected terrorist activities. While the term disrupt is left undefined, it has been suggested that this would give CSIS the power to disrupt travel plans, cancel financial transactions, intercept goods, and interfere with radical websites. The only real limitation is that a court order will be required if CSIS wants to violate a person's Charter rights. And while this might be intended to keep the agency in check, a provision which allows a government agency to violate a person's human rights if they get permission from a judge does little to alleviate concerns by civil rights activists.

The bill passed the house of commons with a huge majority after getting support not only from the governing Conservative Party, but also from the Liberal Party as well. Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau has stated that they will offer amendments to the law as part of their election platform, which would add oversight provisions to the law. It is an interesting political strategy to embrace an authoritarian law in the hopes that people will elect you to fix it. The NDP and the Green Party voted against Bill C-51 in the House of Commons, and made their opposition to it loud and clear.

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I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.