Is Harper exploiting cyberbully panic to reboot the Internet spying bill?

Jesse Brown notes familiar phrasing in the PM's latest thinking

In the face of Canada’s incomprehension, grief and anger over the Rehtaeh Parsons case, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was characteristically calm and reasonable — at first.  In his initial reaction to the tragedy, he said the following:

“I think we’ve got to stop using just the term ‘bullying’ to describe some of these things. Bullying to me has a kind of connotation … of kids misbehaving. What we are dealing with in some of these circumstances is simply criminal activity.”

Sober words. Rape is a crime. Threats and defamation are crimes. Harassment and invasion of privacy can be crimes. We have laws that clearly define these offences and their punishments. What happened to Rehtaeh Parsons was (as Harper put it), sickening, and we should not for a moment tolerate it. But let’s not use a reductive, juvenile and hazy term like “bullying” to describe it. Instead, let’s learn the truth, enforce our laws and punish anyone who has committed a crime against this girl.

Her case has been re-opened by the RCMP, but while we’re waiting for justice to be done the Prime Minister has shifted his focus. Here’s what he had to say when the Rehtaeh Parsons case came up yesterday in the House of Commons:

“… one of the difficulties here is that investigative tools for our police officers have not kept pace with the Internet age. That must change.”

What a strange thing to say. It’s hard to imagine that it has anything to do with the RCMP’s investigation into the case. We’ve heard nothing of legal obstacles standing between the cops and an arrest. As the RCMP has itself documented, Internet providers require no warrants from police in cases of child endangerment.

So what is Harper talking about?

If his phrasing sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it’s cribbed from old Conservative talking points used to push Bill C-30, the infamous and failed attempt to expand warrantless police surveillance of the Internet. Here’s how Vic Toews’ Public Safety Ministry defended his ill-fated “Protecting Children From Child Predators Act”:

“While technology has advanced significantly over the past four decades … investigative processes available to law enforcement … have not kept pace with this evolution.”

It’s been long-rumoured that the Conservatives intend to revive C-30 and sneak the most objectionable aspects into some new, less controversial, piece of legislation. With the public clamouring for some kind of “anti-cyber bullying” law, will Harper get over his well-reasoned resistance to the “bullying” label and instead seize the opportunity to smuggle surveillance into Canadian law? Justice Minister Rob Nicholson is already suggesting some kind of new legislation. Will this be the smokescreen for C-30 2.0? How long before he makes like Vic Toews and tells us that we either stand with him or with the cyber bullies?

Do I sound paranoid, or am I right in suspecting that Harper just tipped his hand? We’ll learn that in time, but for now what I want to know is this: exactly what new “investigative process” is Harper contemplating, and how would it have made a bit of difference for Rehtaeh Parsons?

If it wouldn’t have, then I can’t help but wonder if the Prime Minister is exploiting the suicide of a teenage girl to revive a political initiative.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown

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