The Harper government has blinked in the face of a backlash over legislation that would give authorities new powers to police the Web, saying it's now prepared to accept a broad range of changes to a bill criticized as a major intrusion into Canadians' privacy.
The government's new conciliatory tone comes only two days after Public Safety Minister Vic Toews beat back criticism of the legislation by declaring that critics either stood with the Conservatives "or with the child pornographers."
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The climb-down came the same day that some Conservative MPs, in a rare display of candour, went public with their concerns over Bill C-30, which the Harper government has named the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act.
"I think it's too intrusive as it currently stands and does need to be looked at," said New Brunswick Tory MP John Williamson, one of several MPs to talk to reporters. "There's a lot of concern, I think, across the country as well."
This is the first time that the Conservative government has conceded it may need to broadly rewrite legislation since its re-election to a majority in May, 2011. In recent days the Tories had found it difficult to explain why they would back a bill that privacy watchdogs called invasive when they had scrapped both the long-gun registry and the mandatory long-form census in the name of protecting personal freedom.
The Harper government announced Wednesday that it is prepared to send the legislation to committee before a vote on second reading, a rarely-used procedural manoeuvre that allows MPs to make major changes to the legislation.
"What that is a signal of is that the government is open to a broad range of amendments in order to get the right balance," Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said.
"Our objective here is to provide the necessary tools for police to be able to do what they used to do with old technology with new technology while at the same time ensuring that individuals' privacy rights are protected," he said.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office acknowledged Canadians had concerns.
"I think any time you are involved in anything that has anything to do, potentially, with people's privacy, there's a reaction and it's incumbent on the government to get the balance right," said Andrew MacDougall, associate director of communications for the Prime Minister's Office.
"The government is open to having a thorough study of this at committee to make sure the bill gets done the right way [and]so that we do make those changes that will protect more people while at the same time not intruding on anyone's privacy."
Calgary Conservative MP Rob Anders told reporters that while he didn't have concerns about the bill, he's heard from constituents who do – particularly over the provisions that would give police new powers to obtain personal information without a warrant. He suggested that section may need to be amended.
"I've had talks with my staff and some of my constituents and I think there's probably ways to set it up so you could allow for immediacy in the case of child pornography, but still have a way of seeking some warrants, so I think that's probably the way to go," Mr. Anders said.
Bill C-30 would require telecommunications service providers to give police a person's name, address, phone numbers, e-mail address and Internet Protocol address – which identifies a person on a computer – upon request and without a warrant.
Companies would also be forced to adapt their equipment so that authorities could monitor the actions of subscribers. Those authorities would have to obtain a judicial warrant, however, before they could track the mobile-phone movements and online activities of people suspected of committing a crime.
The bill is supported by police forces and by provincial and territorial attorneys-general. Government officials said similar or more intrusive measures have already been adopted by the United States, Britain, Australia and numerous European countries.