Small ISPs foresee cost burden in ‘Lawful Access’ bills

There has been no shortage of protests over the civil rights and privacy implications of the set of proposed laws now collectively known as Lawful Access bills put forward by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.

But now small Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are complaining that the proposed legislation, that would give police new powers to monitor and intercept Internet communications in Canada will place a heavy financial burden on their businesses.

“Passage of these bills would mean a lot of additional expenditures for new equipment, training and administration for many of our members who do not necessarily have to financial power enjoyed by telecom incumbents,” said Tom Copeland, current chair of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, (CAIP) an organization of some 24 small ISPs around the country.

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The majority of ISPs in the country perceive there is no need for the legislation according to Copeland who is also founder and president of eagle.ca,  a Cobourg, Ont.-based ISP serving businesses in the North Humberland area since 1995.

Before the May 2 election, Conservatives have promised to their constituents to reintroduce before Parliament laws that would provide police greater powers to compel parties to surrender to authorities information transmitted over the Internet.

The bills included:

C-50 – Access to Investigative Tools for Serious Crimes Act, which would empower police to intercept private communications without a warrant under certain circumstances.

C-51 – Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act, which would allow police to get: a) warrant to recover information transmitted over the Internet and data related to its transmission such as location of individuals and transactions; b) orders that compel other parties to preserve electronic evidence.

C-52 – Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act, which would require ISPs to a) have infrastructures that will allow law enforcement agents to intercept Internet communications of their customers; b) provide basic information about their subscribers to law enforcement agencies.

The government has tried on several occasions in the past to pass similar bills. Government and law enforcement officials argue that such laws are needed because the Internet has opened up new ways of committing crime and has made it harder for police to investigate.

Stop Spying campaign

Many civil liberties groups are against the proposed legislation.

“These surveillance bills will transform the Internet into a closed, rigid, paranoid space,” Steve Anderson, executive director of Open Media, said in a statement. Open Media is a group leading the “Stop Spying” campaign against the three bills.

Open Media said that without a warrant, police interception of private communication constitutes an invasion of privacy and will render personal and financial information less secure.

“The government has not given adequate evidence on the need for legislation, and the proposed laws were never subject to committee review,” according to Michael Geist, an Internet law expert based at the University of Ottawa.

In a recent blog on the topic, Geist also outlined three reasons for concern over the Lawful Access bills:

  • The bills mandate disclosure of some personal information without court judicial oversight
  • It would established a massive ISP regulatory process (including background checks on employees)
  • The move would require broad new surveillance technologies that would cost millions (without a sense of who actually pays)

“Given these problems, it is not surprising that every privacy commissioner in Canada has signed a joint letter expressing their concerns,” Geist wrote in his blog.

No business cases for small ISPs

Geist told ITBusiness.ca that the Lawful Access bills envision mandatory aoption of deep packet inspection technologies to establish surveillance capabilities.

“For many ISPs, there is no business case for investing in such technologies,” he said. “This will be a major cost with no real payback.”

In addition to this, the proposed laws would need a significant regulatory infrastructure that would entail reporting requirements and even employee backgrounds the lawyer said. “This would create new costs and undermine the competitiveness of smaller providers.”

Copeland of CAIP who has been operating a small ISP for over 16 years agrees..

“Some of the routing and switching gear I have been using go back 16 years. Other equipment I get through eBay. They meet my and my customers’ requirements but they might not meet the requirements of the proposed bills,” he said.

Many small ISPs are in the same boat, Copeland said, and will have hard time shouldering the cost the proposed bill would require.

He is also worried that passage of the bills might open a floodgate of law suits from irate customers: “I have been in operation for 16 years and have never had to deal with law suits from customers concerning invasion of privacy. What if individuals whose private information is accessed by police decide to sue ISPs as well?”

Nestor Arellano is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, read his blogs on ITBusiness.ca Blogs, email nestor at narellano@itworldcanada.com and join the ITBusiness.ca Facebook Page.

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