Madam Speaker, this is an important piece of legislation we are debating here today, if for no other reason than it having been long delayed in finally being dealt with by the House.
I am advised by credible sources that Canada is the only G8 country that does not have legislation governing spam. This legislation deals with more than spam, but the bill's moniker out there on the street is that it is an “anti-spam” bill. So this is what Parliament is attempting to legislate on, and in my view, the bill could have a massive potential impact in the world of electronic commerce.
I am also advised that for a period of time some of the business organizations in our country were uncomfortable with provisions in the initial bill. Some amendments have been made to the initial bill, and I believe those organizations support it now.
It is incredibly important for us to ensure that if this bill is passed at second reading, which I believe it will be, the committee that studies it has the fullest consultation possible with professionals and businesses in this field to ensure that we deliver the best bill we can without impairing our electronic commerce, while protecting the privacy and other amenities that almost all Canadians would agree with.
The bill itself begins by attempting to prohibit. I say “attempting” because it is all very well for us to pass a law that prohibits or criminalizes or somehow regulates something, but the proof is in the pudding. The bill has to have an impact on the street, and in order to prohibit, there must be reasonable enforcement; and in order for there to be enforcement, there has to be a resourcing of those officials who would police or regulate.
This particular bill embarks on a course that has been followed in other legislation. It would allow the private sector to do some forms of enforcement or to participate in the organization of the regulation or enforcement. That is a positive step, but my point is that we just cannot pass a bill that prohibits and purports to regulate; we must also look to the issue of the means and modalities of enforcement. I note that while there is not a Criminal Code type of prohibition, the bill does have some significant potential financial penalties that could be applied.
But just because I stand here and say the bill has financial penalties, and just because we enact it, does not mean that those financial penalties will be brought to bear. The mechanisms of enforcement that involve quasi judicial and judicial enforcement have to be properly resourced.
I will deal with each of the prohibitions in the bill later in a little more depth, but at this point I just want to list them for the benefit of my own remarks.
The first thing that the bill would prohibit is spam itself. In other words, it would prohibit the sending, without the consent of the recipient, of what I call “junk”, what the bill calls something else, and what some people on the street call “spam”. Most of us who work on computers and receive emails are familiar with that type of communication.
The bill would prohibit false statements that disguise the origins of the email or the intent of the email. That involves a communication where the sender disguises what the message is about or inserts some piece of information that would entice the receiver to open it up.
Third, the bill would prohibit the installation of unauthorized programs. While I personally have not known myself to be victimized by this, I know it is a huge problem when emails bearing these bad news programs are opened up and somehow they worm their way into a computer's operating system. In some cases it can have dire effects on the computer system.
Fourth, it would prohibit the unauthorized collection of personal information and email addresses. The real core of that particular prohibition is the personal information piece. I will speak more about that later. That is a huge component of this and one which will have to be managed carefully under this legislation when it is finally put in force.
This series of prohibitions and the other statutory pieces that are proposed arose out of the report of a task force that completed its work about five years ago. I mention that only to indicate that the bill has good grounding in the private sector. The task force brought together industry and government in a way that produced a listing of these problematic issues with the Internet.
While we may have been showing some leadership five years ago, it is clear that we have been really slow to get this legislation enacted. Why it has not been a priority I can only guess, but if anyone wanted to look at the order paper, one would see a list of about 10 or 15 criminal law amendments jamming the legislative calendar when I and most people around the House know that most of those criminal law amendments could have been put into one bill and dealt with together.
However, our Conservative colleagues, and perhaps it was not even our Conservative colleagues, but under the leadership of the Prime Minister or whoever is driving the bus, a decision was made to clutter our parliamentary legislative agenda with all of these separate criminal law amendment bills. Forgive me for making this sidebar reference. I do not want to call all these criminal law amendments spam, but they could have been put into one, two or three bills. It would substantially reduce the number of bills the House and the other place have to deal with.
There are complaints about a log jam and that bills are piling up in the pipeline. I know the Minister of Justice will react to this and he will want to explain why the government chose to put 15 bills through the pipeline instead of two or three. Those bills have cluttered the legislative agenda much in the way that spam clutters our inboxes and our individual computers.
There is always a complaint that there is so much legislation that is not getting through the House. I know that complaint is coming. If it does not come today, it will come tomorrow, next week or at the end of the year. In my view, with respect to all of those bills, the government has to be the author of its own misfortune, if there is misfortune. However, I can report that there is some reasonably judicious, if I can use the term, management of all of those bills. We will certainly do our work.
In any event, regarding this anti-spam legislation, we have failed in an international sense, in my view, to provide appropriate leadership. We are a technologically advanced country. We have a parliamentary House that is sensitive to the issue. We had a task force in place five years ago. There was a report. A bill was created at some point and then it just seemed to languish.
In fairness to the government, we have had a sequence of minority governments and shorter Parliaments. I do accept the will of the Canadian electorate in creating these minority Parliaments, but the downside is that we do not get a good long run at the legislative calendar. It gets cut short by elections. I know my colleagues on the Liberal side will relate to this. It also gets cut short by prorogations, as has happened conspicuously a couple of times around here. In any event, we are muddling along and doing our best.
This particular bill is addressing a huge challenge, as has happened in the legislation of other countries. The Internet is new in human history. We do not really have all of the nouns and adjectives to describe exactly what it is. It is an entire universe of activity, communication, buying and selling, and conveying all manner of data. Without a lot of human experience in this field, the human race is grappling with whether, first of all, this particular field should be regulated.
The answer to that in the beginning was no. Many advocates behind the Internet, as it was originally born, took the view that it should be unrestricted and free, that it should be allowed to develop and flourish as another means of human communication and human endeavour.
It quickly became apparent that people with good motives and people with bad motives began using the Internet and its modalities for their own purposes. In some cases, those purposes were seen to be anti-social, and there is a general consensus on this. For example, there is the perpetuation of some form of criminality, to steal, to defraud, to abuse our children, or to steal from our privacy. Those are just some of the alleged anti-social forms of activity that appear on the Internet.
Ultimately we, as legislators, and the task force five years ago, reached the conclusion that there had to be some restraints. The restraints are described in this bill as prohibitions.
I do not underestimate the vastness of all we are trying to regulate as, just to look at it in this country, we are only a piece of the global Internet. This bill is trying to do that, but I suppose it could try to do it in a way that is sensitive to the capacity of the Internet to do good things. I will speak to that later if I have time.
It seems to me that anyone with the capacity to store electronic data could engage in the business of collecting data on persons and institutions. If one really put one's mind to it, one could come up with quite a good collection of financial and personal data. That by itself would not be good or bad necessarily. It could be used for bad things, or it could be used for good things.
It is not clear to me whether the bill really deals with this, but what if those who collect such data began to artificially assemble in the Internet false persons, non-existent identities of persons or institutions? One could, I am sure, create in the Internet world something that looked like a person, that seemed like a person, that had an identity of a person but that really was not a person, and that false identity, that non-existent but Internet-existent thing could do good things or bad things.
I realize my remarks are a bit on the philosophical side, but the capacity is out there to do this. It could be said that this bill comes close to regulating that, but I am not sure it does and I am not so sure that we have seen all of that develop in the Internet. We see little bits and pieces of it developing here and there, but I am thinking in terms of an Internet bad guy or an Internet good guy with all of this data and using it for good purposes or using it for bad purposes. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I do not think this bill really deals with that.
I want to deal with each of the categories of prohibition.
The first one is spam without consent. That is easy for most of us because most of us have experienced it. I know from remarks made today that in Canada there are nine billion pieces of spam a year. That is a lot of territory. The cost is $130 billion a year.
It is not because the spam shows up on one's computer that it is costly. The fact is that the communications infrastructure that carries all of this stuff costs money. Whoever is spending money for Internet services is actually bearing the cost of carrying the spam. Are the spammers paying their fair share? They might be. It is not clear. I have not seen that addressed with a great deal of precision. I suppose I could say if the spammers were paying a commercial rate for all of their unwanted spam it might lower the cost burden on those users who do not send out spam and it might lower the cost to everybody. However, I will leave that aside.
Electronic filters that software provides do make a difference. It is a big help to Internet users around the world to have filters to clear out most of the spam.
I do want to point out a problem which is particular to members of Parliament and the way they manage their immigration files.
Many of us in the House have large numbers of immigration files where constituents have brought matters to the MPs. I recently came across a situation of a potential immigrant who was in the queue waiting for his application to be processed. An email was sent to him advising him of the need for a further piece of documentation. He never got that email. As a result, 90 or 100 days later, his file was dropped, closed, terminated, by our immigration department because there was not a response. The thinking is, why did that happen? Clearly, the email was sent to the right address. There is some sense that a filter on the recipient's computer may have blocked it and, regrettably, we do not know how to fix that kind of problem. Filters are usually good, but sometimes they are not.
The enforcement under this bill would be with the CRTC, the Privacy Commissioner and the Competition Bureau. The fines would be between $1 million and $10 million. They are administrative monetary penalties and would not be delivered by a judge but by these organizations.
I hope we do find teeth and enforcement. Time will tell. I only raise one caution. We should make sure, in this bill, that we do not restrict political communications or communications from religious groups, and I hope our international treaties will begin to reflect these issues involving the Internet.