politics

Proposed Tory omnibus crime bill raises concerns of civil liberties

Published On:  J-Source, May 26th, 2011
[http://www.j-source.ca/english_new/detail.php?id=6546]

With a new parliamentary majority, Stephen Harper hopes to pass an omnibus crime bill (consisting of at least eleven individual bills) in order to re-write current legislation, and deliver on the government’s tough-on-crime platform.

Unofficially referred to as the “lawful access” bill, it is the most important piece of legislative business for the Tories after the budget. Debate has arisen in regards to its far-reaching implications, from increased police powers to issues of freedom of expression.

Analyzing the package, Toronto Star columnist Michael Geist emphasized its“three-pronged approach focused on information disclosure, mandated surveillance technologies, and new police powers.”

Combined with its proposition to extend police powers (a matter not yet debated extensively in parliament, nor subjected to committee hearings), “lawful access” would require service providers to disclose customer information (i.e. phone number, address, email, etc.) without judicial approval and for each service provider to adjust for “real-time surveillance.” In other words, law enforcement officials will be able to intercept personal online communication.

In an opinion piece for the Toronto Sun, Brian Lilley noted that the omnibus bill is being promoted as a bill that would allow police to track child-pornographers more proficiently. However, Lilley notes that “lawful access” would also make it illegal for anyone to link to any website that “promotes hatred.”

According to a summary of the bill on the Library of Parliament’s website, “Clause 5 of the bill provides that the offences of public incitement of hatred and wilful promotion of hatred may be committed by any means of communication and include making hate material available, by creating a hyperlink that directs web surfers to a website where hate material is posted, for example.”  The issue of hyperlinks in connection to defamation charges isbeing explored in a case currently before the Supreme Court, and some of the same concerns apply.

Thus, in addition to a lack of parliamentary deliberation, proper judicial oversight, “lawful access”—if passed in full—would have substantial effect on the legal perceptions/definitions of “hate speech.” The omnibus form of the bill reduces the possibility of it being fully examined, thus leaving concerns of privacy and free speech unevaluated. Furthermore, the administrative and technological costs are high, but there has been no mentioning of where the funding will come from.

Concerns over whether “lawful access” will amount to internet policing are high in circles worried about the freedom of expression and speech. Interpretation of such broad legislation will undoubtedly vary between groups and persons.

Sections 318 and 319 of the Canadian Criminal Code explicate “hate speech” or “hate propaganda” within an expansive framework. Anything from promotion of “genocide” to incitement of “hatred against any identifiable group” that may lead to a “breach of the peace” are categorized as illegal. The application and interpretation of these laws vis a vis cyberspace will surely become more frequent if the omnibus bill is passed. How will the surveillance apparatus deal with this challenge?

According to the omnibus bill, if one were to link to a website that contained hate propaganda, one could be subject to jail time. This then raises the question of context. What if a journalist is reporting on a case of hate speech and links to a particular “hateful” webpage in order to provide evidence or to cite his or hers assertions?  Will the surveillance apparatus set up to enforce these laws be able to distinguish between something like this, and an actual case of “hate speech” endorsement? The omnibus bill does not seem to distinguish between such matters of context.

If simply linking to a page that may qualify for “hate speech,” questions regarding issues of civil liberties and free expression become even more urgent and acute. Canada’s wide legal definition of “hate speech” compounds the problem.

A citizen’s right to express his or her opinion is liable to come under attack, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the actual statement. For journalists specifically, the dissemination of crucial information could be curbed. In any case, the enshrined right of Canadians to express their opinions freely may be undermined.

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middle east, muslims, war on terror

Niqab-ban in France: Contextualized and Dispelled

“Toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to […] the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it.”
—John Locke

Much a fuss has been made of the recent ban that has gone into effect in France that forbids the wearing of the niqab in public. At once an opportunistic tactic, but also a misinterpretation of Enlightenment principles, the legislation is not necessarily worth the amount of press and anguish devoted to it.

Nicholas Sarkozy is the least popular French president since the founding of the Fifth Republic. Hovering at around 25% approval from his people, Sarkozy has so far enacted a two part play in order to rectify his image. First, his overt conjecture in the NATO bombing campaign in Libya was supposed to rally his countrymen behind his veneer of Manichean populism (while he let the U.S. do the heavy-lifting where it counted). Next came the ban, something less than novel at this point in time (recall Quebec, Belgium, Turkey, the Netherlands, etc.). Sarkozy knew this was a sure-fire route to take when his heart sank at the prospect of Marine Le Pen out-prejudicing him on the Islam front. The horror! Halal food and minarets have gone through the same treatment.

But it seems that every time something like this comes along, one is forced to enter into another nebulous philosophical debate with “clash of civilizations”, “secular freedom under siege”, “repression of women” and other clichés bouncing off of one another. Every single time, the same arguments are re-argued, and the same anguish is recycled. However, with each subsequent joust, the discourse becomes more unclear, eventually mediating the representation of the big picture that finally gets lost in the fold.

Let’s quickly dispel the three main arguments deployed by those who are for the niqab ban. (1) No, the fewer-than-2000 niqabis in France do not constitute a security threat. A backpack is a much better place to hide a bomb, should we ban them? Should we also ban ski masks (much more common in robberies) and balaclavas (popular among violent protestors)? (2) No, banning the niqab is not on the same plane as banning frontal nudity in public. Most free societies do have some sort of regulation in term of dress, but compromises can be reached when particular difficulties like the niqab are presented. There are ways around problems like this, like getting a female bureaucrat to check ID when necessary. Not the end of the world. (3) The “mobile prison argument”, that women are forced to wear the face-veil by their fathers and husbands. Suffice it to say that one should speak to those who wear the niqab in order to evaluate the merit of this argument.

Where does that bring us? Back to square one, a most basic and fundamental principle of Enlightenment expression and tolerance: cartoonists who drew demeaning portraits of the Prophet Muhammad have to put up with the face veil, and the niqabis have to put up with the cartoonists. One may not “approve of” or respect a particular way of life, but—like it or not—that is the deal in a free society: one must to learn to live with practices that one “resents”.

Therefore, the Sarkozy ruse is, like its progenitors, an easy one to untangle. It fails politically due to its easily detectable hypocrisy and opportunism, but also philosophically (if one is to grant him the audience of an unnecessary debate), for it disrespects the vows of a free society and the guiding principles of free-expression/religious-freedom.

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