What: Online surveillance legislation put on hold after mass opposition

Where: Canada

Who: OpenMedia.ca; CIPPIC

Lessons Learned

  • Innovative social media campaigns can fuel public interest.
  • Whenever possible, build opposition before bad legislation is introduced.
  • “People are smart. Let them help.” (Lindsey Pinto, OpenMedia.ca)

The Surveillance Proposal

Since the late 1990s, Canada has seen numerous proposals for so-called “lawful access” legislation seeking to grant police more power to intercept digital communications and access subscriber information without a warrant. Initially, the government’s latest bid for these new powers was included in an omnibus crime bill containing a host of troubling provisions. This legislative package was tabled in the fall of 2011, but no sooner did opponents of invasive online surveillance practices breathe a sigh of relief than Canada’s Bill C-30 emerged.

Introduced on Valentines Day of 2012, the standalone online spying legislation would have forced Internet service providers (ISPs) to hand over customer registration details to law enforcement without a warrant. “Bill C-30 was the Canadian government's latest attempt to update its online surveillance capacity by leveraging the communications infrastructure (ISPs, mobile phones, online service providers such as Google, Twitter and Facebook) against its citizens,” explains Tamir Israel of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC).

Yet when a wave of public outrage arose against Bill C-30, its proponents found themselves on the defensive – and the bill was sent back to committee, where it remained dormant for months afterward. While this outcome marked a battle victory for anti-surveillance activists, opponents of C-30 remained concerned as of the end of 2012 that it would resurface.

The Campaign

Opposition to Bill C-30 was driven by a broad-ranging coalition of NGOs, academics and other concerned parties including EFF. The Stop Online Spying campaign website was powered by OpenMedia.ca, while the Canadian Internet and Public Policy Clinic (CIPPIC) used its legal expertise to analyze the bill and find holes in the government’s argument. The two organizations worked collaboratively to build a coalition and mount opposition.

One successful campaign element was the use of Twitter to spread the word in a fun way. Users were encouraged to Tweet mundane details of their lives to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, an architect of Bill C-30, to demonstrate their opposition. Unified under the hashtag #TellVicEverything, opponents buried Toews’ Twitter account with an avalanche of Tweets containing such revelations as: "I used soy milk in my cereal today. Still on the fence about it." At one point, the phrase #TellVicEverything was trending globally on Twitter, the mark of penetrating public consciousness in the digital age.

“It helped Canadians understand how excessive this bill was,” explained Communications Manager Lindsey Pinto. “It got more people involved and engaged, and that created a feedback loop – which made it difficult for the media to ignore it.”

Another creative component of the Stop Online Spying campaign was a series of broadcast-quality videos produced by volunteers, which were posted online and aired on television. “You should allow people to say, ‘I have a skill and I want to use it,’” Pinto advises. “People are smart – let them help.”

The proposed legislation has also attracted widespread condemnation from privacy experts, Privacy Commissioners (including specific concerns from the Federal and Ontario Commissioners, as well as general concerns on behalf of all Canadian privacy officers collectively), telecommunications companies and major Canadian newspapers.

The Strategy

Strategies around both timing and messaging helped the success of the effort to halt Bill C-30. First, opponents began campaigning even before the bill was introduced. “We made sure we did so early -- after we knew the initiative was coming, but before the government was ready to push forward with it in a serious way,” notes Israel. “For example, we hosted a roundtable amongst interested parties with representatives from a broad range of groups and individuals … within a month or so of the legislation's revival in early 2011. Having our coalition in place and operating early/preemptively was critical, in my mind.”

By the time Bill C-30 officially came under consideration, around 40,000 people had already signed the Stop Online Spying petition. That number eventually rose to around 147,000 signatures.                            

As for messaging, CIPPIC and others had to find ways of countering the government’s talking points. For example, the government asserted that nothing privacy-invasive was afoot, and tried to describe online data as being similar to information that could be found in a phonebook. Yet C-30 opponents used the analogy of footprints, which could be used to track one’s every step, to debunk the claim.

The coalition also showed that the need for this legislation had yet to be demonstrated, resulting in over-broad powers that had little to do with the actual problems law enforcement claimed it was trying to solve in the technical realm. Finally, the legislation was presented in Parliament as 'child pornography' legislation. The coalition debunked this myth by explaining in detail how the bill had little, if anything, to do with child exploitation.

“This ability to provide the full range of messaging (and to do it early) in a coordinated manner was critical,” notes Israel. “It ensured all of our messaging was substantively on point, while raising general awareness, providing the press with enough information to understand the true nature of the legislation. When the government announced that 'this legislation is about child pornography', for example, the media could directly access sources explaining very clearly and directly, with references to the legislation, how this was not the case.”




Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic


Privacy Expert Michael Geist


Guest Blog: CIPPIC tech lawyer Tamir Israel debunks government myths on online spying


“Ever Vigilant” Report by Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian


Ontario Privacy Commissioner Letter Writing Tool


Stop Online Spying Petition


Letter to Public Safety Canada from Canada’s Privacy Commissioners