February 13, 2009
The Internet generates more metaphors than an amateur poetry contest, but there is one that sticks: Parts of it are a sewer.
The Internet has opened up new worlds of knowledge, communication, teaching and learning, sharing of information ... the conveniences and benefits are almost countless. It has become a meeting place for people with similar interests -- hobbyists and professionals, researchers and gossips, writers and photographers, and on and on.
But the Internet has also become a meeting place for the worst of our society -- the evil and the corrupt. It is a conduit for depravity and criminal behaviour. It has allowed people, who in previous generations would have been isolated by their perversions, to find "communities" of like-minded deviants. While the Internet has arguably been responsible for a new era of creative expression and collaboration, it has also been responsible for an explosion of the "marketplace" for child pornography. That has directly led to more children being exploited.
The Internet also provides a relatively safe and anonymous way for terrorists, for example, to communicate, recruit and plan.
Police should have the tools -- sensibly legislated and carefully controlled by the courts -- to "enter" the Internet to stop serious wrongdoing, prevent exploitation of victims and charge criminals.
The Internet is so new -- most of the public has only been aware of its existence for a little more than 10 years -- that one of its attractions is its lack of regulation and control. Most of that is good, but there is a dark side, and governments have to give police reasonable tools to fight crime in an era when digital communication and cyberspace are rendering home phone lines and "snail mail" artifacts of a previous century.
The Harper government is preparing new "wiretapping" legislation that will allow police, with court approval, to force Internet service providers (ISPs) to let them tap into exchanges such as e-mail, messaging and so on.
There will be protests by those who fear "Big Brother" will be monitoring private conversations. There will be arguments that the new legislation will be an unreasonable violation of free speech and privacy. That criticism is good and needed. The government should listen. Canadians have the expectation of and right to private communications. Eavesdropping legislation must be open to scrutiny and debate.
But the discussion should take place. Police wiretaps on telephones or interceptions of mail have long been seen as reasonable infringements of the right to privacy if a court can be convinced there is evidence that it is in the interest of public or individual safety. There's no good reason that the Internet should be exempt from that, or be a safe haven for criminals.
Mass retention by ISPs of private communications "in case" police want them later -- posited by some as a possible result of the new law -- would go too far. But if, as police are now indicating, they are seeking improved "real-time" access to communications between criminals, and can meet the test of the courts, that seems -- at first look -- a measure that reasonable people will be able to support.