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Conservatives vote down proposed changes to online surveillance bill

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OTTAWA - The Conservatives have defeated several proposals from opposition MPs to temper federal cyberbullying legislation — a bill many critics say would make it too easy for police, spies and others to monitor the public's online activities.

The legislation would make it illegal to distribute intimate images without consent and remove barriers to getting such pictures scrubbed from the Internet.

However, it also overhauls the existing system of production and preservation orders and warrants, and would give authorities new tools to track and trace telecommunications to determine their origin or destination.

At the Commons justice committee, opposition MPs put forward a raft of amendments to raise the hurdles authorities would have to clear before getting access to the data of Internet users, as well as build more accountability into the new system.

Opposition members argued the bill unduly lowers the threshold for obtaining some personal information, unnecessarily broadens immunity to companies that hand over information and lacks a requirement that agencies report on their use of the new powers.

The Conservative majority on the committee ensured the defeat of almost all of their proposed amendments.

The bill contains new powers under which sensitive information would become accessible to authorities based on a "reasonable suspicion" of wrongdoing, a standard lower than the constitutional default of "reasonable and probable grounds" to believe an offence has taken place.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was among those who unsuccessfully tried to amend those provisions.

The bill would give far too much licence to authorities, she said in an interview.

"It basically means you could go on a witch hunt after absolutely anybody without anything that would meet the 'reasonable grounds' test of previous criminal law."

Companies such as Internet service providers can currently provide personal information to government agencies — even when investigators lack a warrant or other judicial approval — without fear of being held liable.

However, the cyberbullying bill would remove the requirement that a criminal offence or a breach of another federal law be under investigation in such cases. The privacy commissioner has warned that would give police complete discretion to ask companies to voluntarily hand over customer data in any circumstances.

During clause-by-clause review, Liberal MP Sean Casey said no company that testified before the committee asked for the immunity power.

"Those who hold the records, those who are being given the immunity, those who are being shielded from class-action lawsuits and criminal liability have not asked for this," he said. "Not one."

In denying government support to strike the provision from the bill, Conservative MP Bob Dechert said several victims' advocates supported the immunity measure.

The NDP also made several attempts to modify the bill, including a requirement that telecommunications providers who voluntarily preserve data — or provide authorities with documents — to submit an annual report to the government specifying the number of requests made, the volume of data preserved and the number of documents disclosed.

Dechert said the measure would put "a disproportionate reporting burden" on the telecommunications sector, noting others such as banks and transportation companies would not have the same obligation.

New Democrat MP Eve Peclet said the public safety minister should be required to report to Parliament on the various powers exercised under the bill.

"We must be able to know what happens to our personal information."

The Conservatives rejected the suggestion, saying the volume of orders — for instance, for the preservation of data — would make the reporting "administratively impractical."

Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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