The Harper government's us vs them mentality resurfaces in Internet privacy laws
Feb 14, 2012

The Harper government's us vs them mentality resurfaces in Internet privacy laws

“He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers"
So says Public Safety Minister Vic Toews defending the proposed Lawful Access legislation which would give sweeping new powers to the police regarding access to information on the Internet. It is, of course, a monstrous false dichotomy of the most pernicious kinds that pretends the only way one could oppose the act is to be directly supporting child pornography.

This rhetoric, not an uncommon sentiment from the Harper government, takes an example of the epitome of evil - child pornographers in this case - and contrasts their position with that. Surely one doesn't want to be on the side of the child pornographers, thus one must ardently defend the Harper government's position! Many a bad political position has been defended by 'think of the children!' type statements. Whatever one feels about the actual legislation, it should be clear that there is ample room for legitimate debate on the topic that can only be impeded by such insulting rhetoric.

The Bush model:
The Harper government is surely not the first to try this us vs. bad guys rhetoric. George W. Bush infamously used exactly this rhetoric in his address to a joint session of Congress shortly after 9/11 stating that "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists". This Manichaean paranoia went on to underpin and justify all of the most egregious affronts to basic civil liberties and loss of life that the War on Terror has come to be known for. History has now shown that opposition to the Bush doctrine that began in a meaningful way following this speech is both the correct moral path and, clearly, in no way means one is with the terrorists. That Harper, who has long tried to dodge comparisons to American conservatives, would so overtly mimic one of the most iconic and misguided phrases of the last decade is startling.

Census hypocrisy:
There is a certain hypocrisy to all of this. Last year, the Conservatives decided to cancel the mandatory long form census through a controversial Order of Council, much to the chagrin of Statistics Canada, provincial governments, and many organizations. Key in the rhetorical arguments of the time made by people such as Industry Minister Tony Clement was that this was a violation of privacy. The move largely represented the Conservatives tossing a bit of red meat to their base. When it comes to the Lawful Access legislation, however, these concerns of privacy seem to have vanished. Warrant-less access to one's email address, IP, and the like don't seem to trigger the alarms from the Conservatives over their ostensible deep respect for privacy. Concerns for privacy are relevant precisely when they help the Conservatives politically.

Gaffes or deliberate?
One can sometimes make too much of a big deal over what are just gaffes, inconsequential slips in rhetoric that are neither representative of the polititians actual views or the views they wish to portray. I would submit that this is not the case here and Vic Toews didn't make an accidental mistake when he issued the "with us or with the child pornographers" line. Consider that the title of the bill is now renamed go be called the Protecting Children From Internet Predators Act. This name, clearly carefully chosen, presents the same false dichotomy only with internet predators swapped with child pornographers. The idea is that if someone is not supporting this bill, they must not care about and are even enabling the Internet predators and child pornographers.

Under the Harper government, there has been an extremely tight control of the media portrayal with a concentration of much of the entire government's public profile through the PMO to an extent that far exceeds past governments. It is hard to imagine in such a tight culture that so many high level cabinet ministers are just constantly making gaffes. This "with us or against us" mentality has come through, however, time and time again. Most noticeably is when Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver decried those who opposed the Northern Gateway pipeline as "radicals". It is the same sentiment all over again that there is no way any reasonable person could oppose anything the Conservatives do unless they are radicals who support child pornography and hate Israel.

This is also not the first time such rhetoric has come up. During the 2004 election campaign, Harper released a press release implying that Paul Martin must also be supporting child pornography. This issue, which he never backed down from, played a nontrivial role in the outcome of that election as people largely found this to be an unfair criticism. Rightly so. I have previously portrayed such statements as being 'cracks in the veneer' indicating a much more ideological nature to the tightly controlled Harper government than they would let on with their talk of pragmatism and moderation. More than just being slips that demonstrate a truer reality than the carefully presented face, I suspect they legitimately believe that such tactics are actually politically valuable tactics which is why Vic Toews believes he can say such things. My guess is that just from the perspective of political tactics they are wrong and that Canadians by and large do not like such portrayals. 

It is about trust:
One aspect of the criticism for bills like this one (and corresponding ones in other countries) are essentially issues of slippery slopes. People worry, quite legitimately, about the potential for abuse when things like databases of information of one's travels on the Internet are being recorded. In the Canadian bill much (but not all) of this information requires warrants which is good, but as we have seen the US, when the technology exists things like warrant-less wiretapping may always be around the corner. Even if it doesn't come to such extremes, it is very reasonable to worry that it will be used not just for child pornography, but a wide range of much more benign activities such as illegal downloading at the behest of media lobbies.

As such, the extent to which one might be tempted to support these types of bills depends to some extent on how much we can trust the government. In an effective democracy where the government is beholden to bottom up pressures and works to serve them, many of these provisions do not provide the same kind of threats. However, in a system which is beholden more to corporate interests or the military industrial complex, there is a much higher level potential for abuse. I will let the reader decide which our current system seems closer to. Regardless, statements like those made by Vic Toews do nothing to engender any sense of trust. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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Anonymous said...

Why can't these people come out with their own thoughts instead of regurgitating George W. Bush. Plus, the comment was a total, total insult to the law abiding Canadian People. I am highly insulted and I won't forget that either.

bazie said...

Especially considering that only the tiniest percentage of people actually support child pornography, and I doubt Harper could get a poll that shows a majority support his bill, he is basically insulting half the country.

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