Supreme Court rules Canadians have a right to anonymity online

Friday, June 13, 2014

By Laura Tribe

This morning the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision on R. v. Spencer, with a judgment that will have a substantial impact on online privacy in Canada. The case examined internet service providers' disclosure of basic subscriber information to law enforcement on a voluntary basis (without a warrant), with a unanimous decision that ruled in favour of protecting users’ privacy. Among other implications, this decision means that law enforcement agencies will be required to obtain a warrant to obtain subscriber information, as it is tantamount to a search.

Steve Anderson, Executive Director of Open Media, stated, “This is a historic decision that will protect countless law-abiding Canadians from being unjustly spied on by the government.” Open Media has called the judgment a “huge win for Canadian privacy.” Importantly, this decision poses serious challenges to Bill C-13, the ‘Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act,’ which would subject Canadians to unwarranted surveillance and monitoring by the government under the guise of protection against cyberbullying.

Dr. Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, calls this Supreme Court ruling “a decision that seems likely to define Internet privacy for many years to come,” also highlighting the challenges this poses to the government’s proposed legislation, in bills C-13 and S-4.

CJFE and numerous other organizations have strongly spoken out against Bill C-13, as it poses a substantial threat to free expression. Newly appointed Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Daniel Therrien, has also spoken out against the bill with concerns that it would give police increased power for surveillance.

Protecting Canadians’ privacy online is an important aspect of defending our right to free expression. Having a safe and private space to communicate is an important part of this right; it allows us to express ourselves to whom we choose, when we choose, without fear of negative ramifications from warrantless surveillance. CJFE welcomes this significant decision and looks forward to the positive impact this will have for protecting Canadians’ online activities.

Read the full Supreme Court ruling.

More in the news

CBC | Internet users' privacy upheld by Canada's top court
CBC | Online privacy decision means 'back to the drawing board' for Tories
Calgary Herald | Supreme Court rules on police needing warrants to find Internet child porn users
CTV News | Top court rules search warrant needed to access Internet information
The Globe and Mail | Canadians have the right to online anonymity, Supreme Court rules
Reuters | Canada's top court upholds Internet users' privacy protection
Toronto Star | Police need warrant to get Internet customers’ identities, Supreme Court rules
The Globe and Mail | How new laws are about to change your privacy

More on digital privacy and surveillance in Canada from CJFE

Why don’t Canadians care about digital surveillance?
By Jesse Brown, April 2014

Bill C-13: Cyberbullying legislation threatens free expression
By Paula Todd, April 2014

A year since Snowden
By Laura Tribe, June 5, 2014

Mass surveillance in Canada: It’s real, and it’s a serious problem
By Laura Tribe, January 31, 2014

Laura Tribe is CJFE’s National Programs Coordinator. You can follow her on Twitter at @ltribe.