Under fire from privacy activists in the wake of a proposed new bill, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews watched as details of his private life were laid bare before the world.
On Tuesday, Provencher MP Toews introduced Bill C-30 in the House of Commons. The bill -- renamed the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act -- requires Internet service providers to give police basic subscriber information about their clients, such as names, addresses, email addresses and IP addresses.
Privacy commissioners and new-media watchdogs across Canada cried foul, pledging to fight the bill Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian described as "a major intrusion into our personal lives." The website OpenMedia.ca has collected 93,000 signatures on a petition to kill the bill, calling the legislation "bizarre" and a "mandatory online spying scheme."
Then, another tactic: hours after the bill was introduced, Toews' own dirty laundry was strung out on a digital line.
"Vic wants to know about you," announced a Twitter account known only as Vikileaks30, bearing Toews' image. "Let's get to know Vic."
Then the floodgates opened, and all the nasty bits flowed forth: snippets of affidavits from Toews' acrimonious 2008 divorce, taken from court records and put into the public eye. The quotes were far from flattering, filled as they were with philandering and bitter battles over money.
It was, in other words, all the news previously deemed not fit to print.
For years, the more salacious details of Toews' divorce had made the rounds in Manitoban communities, cropping up in coffee shops, comment sections and off-the-record political barbs. But while the divorce documents are public, the media largely stayed away, leery of wading into the muck of politicians' personal lives.
"We made a decision several years ago, after careful review, not to publish the details," said Free Press Editor Margo Goodhand, "on the grounds that Toews' personal relationships appeared to have no bearing on his ability to do his job."
What's interesting about this anonymous campaign to embarrass the minister, she added, is that it ducks the ethical or legal filters of the mainstream media, and broadcasts directly to the public.
"It's important to know that some allegations are accurate, but other claims are not entirely so, as they would be in any divorce affidavits," Goodhand said. "The Free Press was not only unable to confirm some of these allegations, we ultimately decided they were not our business. This anonymous poster clearly doesn't share that opinion."
This sudden arrival of a mysterious cyberfoe changed the status quo.
"The Internet was going to be this big levelling field, that would take this information that would otherwise be secret," said University of Winnipeg professor Shannon Sampert. "This is the example of that. It is a story now because it's on Twitter. It's not the details -- it's the release of the info that is the story."
It's not known who is running the account, or what -- if any -- political affiliations they have; messages to Vikileaks30 from the Free Press went unanswered. Despite the mystery, the story made a splash -- even one out of scope to its early sphere of influence.
Early Wednesday afternoon, Vikileaks30 had only 2,200 Twitter followers (by comparison, one account tweeting satirical stories about criminal cats has 12,000). But the story was soon splashed on media outlets across Canada, including the Globe and Mail, National Post, the CBC and the Winnipeg Free Press. By the time the evening news shows were over in the prairies, the account's number of followers had doubled, and the buzz had taken over the House of Commons.
Toews refused to comment on Wednesday, tweeting that he "won't get involved in this kind of gutter politics." Meanwhile, opposition MPs jumped at the chance to shine the glaring spotlight back on Bill C-30. "I have absolutely no interest in Vic Toews' private life," NDP MP Charlie Angus told reporters after Question Period Wednesday, before ripping into the legislation. "I've got enough on this guy's public statements to say this man has some explaining to do to Canadians."
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau tweeted to "express support" for Toews, saying "the invasion of his privacy... is reprehensible," and re-iterated the Liberal Party's support for online privacy. (Just in case folks missed the subtle jab, Trudeau returned to social media a few hours later with a more obviously tongue-in-cheek Tweet.)
This is not the first time opponents of a politician or of legislation have taken to Twitter to pseudononymously unleash the stuff of their concern. Satirical accounts parading as a politician are common; in the United States, one Twitter account tweets a steady stream of bigoted quotes purportedly taken from 1990s newsletters curated by Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul.
But in Canada, rarely has social media been used for public backlash so quickly. "It's an interesting way of tweaking the people who are in power, and saying, you have to be careful what you do because sometimes it comes back on you," said Sampert, who was less convinced that Toews' long-term reputation would take too much of a beating.
"Right now, this is a big deal, but frankly everyone has something in their closet."
-- With files from Mia Rabson