Government hints at amending bill

The Harper government signalled Wednesday it’s open to softening a controversial bill that would give authorities easier access to information about Internet users.

OTTAWA — The Harper government signalled Wednesday it’s open to softening a controversial bill that would give authorities easier access to information about Internet users.

The shift came after a torrent of criticism about the legislation — including concerns from some of its own MPs.

In the House of Commons, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the bill would skip the second-reading stage and be sent directly to committee — a move that would make it easier to alter the content.

Generally bills only go to committee after receiving second reading, considered approval in principle from the Commons.

Following question period, Government House leader Peter Van Loan said dispatching the bill to committee now is a sign “that the government is open to a broad range of amendments in order to get the right balance.”

The bill’s tabling Tuesday touched off a heated debate about whether the measures unduly violate privacy.

It would allow authorities access to Internet subscriber information — including name, address, telephone number and email address — without first getting court approval. Currently, release of such data, held by Internet service providers, is voluntary.

The government says the legislation is simply an attempt to bring the law into the 21st century — a much-needed update to keep pace with child pornographers and other criminals who prowl online.

Privacy advocates say the bill goes too far, giving the state Big Brother-like powers to peek into people’s online lives.

“We’re hammering this bill and we’re going to continue hammering this bill because this bill is attacking some fundamental freedoms of Canadians,” said New Democrat MP Charlie Angus.

It became apparent Wednesday that some Conservative MPs share that uneasiness.

“I think it’s too intrusive as it currently stands and does need to be looked at,” said Tory John Williamson, a rookie MP from New Brunswick. “There’s a lot of concern, I think, across the country.”

Ontario Conservative MP David Tilson said he wants to be satisfied that if police are eavesdropping on people, they have permission from a court. “If they don’t have that, well then I’ll be concerned. So I want to hear more about it first.”

Veteran Alberta MP Rob Anders said “there’s probably going to be amendments” to the bill.

He said there are likely ways to adjust the legislation so that police could swiftly deal with child pornographers on the Internet while allowing for court-ordered warrants in other cases.

Angus said Toews is backpedalling because “he came in and stuck his finger in the political socket and he’s been thrown back.”

“We’re standing with the privacy experts. And we’re saying this is above and beyond the rule of law and the minister has to stop hiding behind child victims. He has to come up and explain why he wants to spy on Canadians.”