Slacktivism defeats Lawful Access

Sometimes, staying at home in front the computer is the best thing you can do

There were no rallies against the Conservatives’ “Lawful Access” legislation. No marches, riots, demonstrations or happenings. Canadians who opposed the overreaching and wrongheaded online surveillance measures fought them (where else?) online.

Over 70,000 Canadians clicked to sign a “Stop Online Spying” petition posted by OpenMedia. Yesterday, the Harper government’s omnibus crime bill was introduced—a bundle of bills that had been assumed to include the new warrantless tracking measures. But Lawful Access was nowhere to be found.

OpenMedia quickly issued a press release claiming victory, and rightfully so. Despite a concerning lack of interest in the issue on the part of the mainstream media, OpenMedia successfully educated and activated tens of thousands of Canadians. Was their petition the reason the legislation was omitted? I suppose a letter sent last March signed by the provincial privacy commissioners, which cautioned the government about the invasive nature of the proposed laws may also have had an impact.

It’s also true that Internet service providers were less than thrilled about the prospect of building and maintaining the technical apparatus to constantly spy on their own customers. We may never know for certain what made Justice Minister Rob Nicholson think twice, but I’d hazard a guess that playing a major role in the decision was the prospect of facing down a growing horde of angry netizens, demanding answers to questions few aging legislators are equipped to answer. For example:

  • How can you assure us the tracking data will be safely stored when governments routinely lose and leak personal data?
  • Will the police access the data through a web portal? If so, what happens when it gets hacked?
  • Will the police be allowed to build software “bots” that crawl through our data looking for suspicious online activity?

Better to simply wipe the digitally illiterate laws from the bundled bill than stand accountable for such poorly conceived policy. Lawful Access may very well return unbundled as its own separate bill. If so, those emboldened by their effectiveness so far in fighting it will surely pounce on the wounded legislation. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing just quietly goes away.

Think about it: 70,000 Canadians signed an online petition against Lawful Access, and we don’t yet have Lawful Access. Around 100,000 Canadians joined a Facebook group against a backwards Copyright reform bill, and we don’t yet have backwards Copyright reform. Almost half a million Canadians signed a petition against wholesale usage-based billing, and we don’t have that either.

The ethereal nature of these protests may be the key to their success. Their message to legislators is simple: thousands of Canadians are against what you’re doing. Right now they are angry in their homes, at their computers. Proceed and they may be angry at your door, or at the polls.

Considering its effectiveness, maybe it’s time to think of a more respectful term for online political engagement than “Slacktivism”.

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