Thursday, September 11, 2014

Halifax's Barbershop Booze Bust

Social media in Halifax was abuzz yesterday with the news that some popular local barbershops and salons had been told they could no longer provide their customers with a beer or other drink while they waited for a haircut. The practice  is one that a few local salons and shops have adopted, and an option that seems to be very popular with customers. One barbershop offered their customers the option of a beer or a coffee with their cut, while another would offer sample beers to waiting customers.

Apparently, based on an anonymous complaint, the Halifax Regional Police made the rounds to a number of shops and salons yesterday to inform them that serving drinks was considered a no-no. However, some of the shops claim that they had previously contacted the Province's Alcohol and Gaming Division, and been told that they didn't require a license, or what they were doing was perfectly legal.

News of the bust created a social media firestorm, with Haligonians asking what law the police were enforcing, and why they were hassling hardworking business owners over such a trivial matter. It was pointed out that certain other local businesses (including retailers, massage therapists, spas) have been offering a free drink to their customers for years.

The key thing to remember is that Nova Scotia's Liquor Control Act is an outdated piece of legislation informed by a prohibition mindset. Liquor is a controlled substance, and according to section 78 of the Act, it is unlawful to sell, transport or keep liquor, or even to give or consume it unless the Act or regulations specifically say you can. I personally don't agree with this approach, but that is the reality underpinning the Act.

You can buy liquor at the liquor store because the Act says you can. You can keep, give and consume liquor in your residence (which you have lawfully purchased from the Liquor Corporation) because section 62 of the Act says you can. You can transport the liquor from the store to your home (unopened) because section 54 of the Act says you can. You can purchase liquor at certain licensed establishments or events because the Act says you can. You can give liquor as a gift because section 55 of the Act says you can. Most other things are off limits. You can't even give alcohol away for free at an event without a special occasion permit.

The categories of licensed establishments under the Act are archaic, and there isn't a permit or license that really fits this situation. That leaves these shops in a bit of a no man's land.

You could argue that the drink is a gift to the customer from the shop, and covered by section 55 of the Act. But the Act also has a very vague and broad definition of what constitutes selling liquor, and a pretty broad prohibition against giving someone liquor. It would seem that the police are taking the perspective that it does apply here. Either way, there is some uncertainty in the law.

Even if they could get a license, the cost and rules around licensed establishments would make it difficult if not unworkable for these businesses.

But that begs a bigger question: why would this even be against the law? What is the harm in allowing a business to serve a single drink to a customer as part of the service they offer? I'd argue this is a pretty low risk activity, and that, in a city that has problems with more serious crimes, a waste of valuable police time and resources.

We could simply ask the police to back off, but that would be a stopgap solution.

The common sense solution, in my view, would be to clarify the law by passing a simple amendment to the Liquor Control Act allowing a business that is not a licensed establishment to give a single drink to their paying customers. They would still be subject to all of the restrictions regarding not serving underage or intoxicated customers. This should allow a largely harmless and popular practice to continue, while ensuring that appropriate rules are still in place to protect the public.

Our Liquor Control Act desperately needs an overhaul in any event. This seems like an obvious place to start.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In Defence of Online Privacy

For advocates of online privacy, these are alarming times. In the wake of the revelation that the Canada's spy agency has been using airport wifi to track Canadians, came the news that Canadian  internet providers have been providing confidential information about their customers to Canadian government agencies at a rate that has been described as "staggering" and "jaw-dropping".  In 2011 alone, Canadian government agencies submitted over 1.2 million requests for confidential customer data, often without a warrant or even a clear reason or justification. In some cases, it is as simple as a government agent picking up the phone and requesting the data, with no written request required.

In spite of the apparent ease with which they can access private information, the Canadian government is proposing to make it even easier for a wide range of "public officers" to access information about your online activity. Bill C-13 contains a number of provisions that would make necessary updates to the law to deal with cyberbullying and cybercrime. However, the government has also tacked on a number of controversial provisions which don't directly relate to cybercrime, but which would expand the ability of government officials to access your online information, in some cases without a warrant, and without your consent or knowledge. That part of the Bill is basically the same cyber-spying legislation that Vic Toews tried unsuccessfully to get passed when he was Justice Minister. That legislation was killed, and with good reason. The law didn't sit well with privacy advocates, nor with some conservatives who have fought to protect citizens from unwarranted government intrusion in Canadians private lives.

There is no question our laws need to be updated to deal with the reality of online crime. The question is why it needs to be done without the usual safeguards that protect the rights of law-abiding Canadians to carry on their day to day lives without the constant threat of government surveillance. As the mother of cyber-bullying victim Amanda Todd has pointed out, violating people's privacy without valid justification creates more victims, not less. The answer to cybercrime is not to allow the government to violate its citizens rights with impunity. In fact, it's fairly clear some of these provisions have little to nothing to do with addressing cyberbullying.

Proponents of the Bill have advanced a number of arguments in favour of the cyber-spying provisions. I find some of them unconvincing, and some of them downright frightening.

First, it has been suggested that people should not be standing up for the privacy rights of cybercriminals. This is just basically a re-hash of Vic Toews' infamous statement that if you don't stand with the government, you stand with child pornographers. This is not about the privacy rights of criminals. This is about the privacy rights of all Canadians.

Second, it has been argued that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. But that is precisely the problem with warantless spying. To get a warrant, the police have to show some reasonable and probable grounds for believing you have committed a crime. If they don't need a warrant, they don't have to show any grounds to believe you have done something wrong. They can access your private online information for any reason they want.

Third, it has been argued that these are merely "tools" that will help the police solve more crimes. Of course they will. If the police knew what everyone was doing at every hour of the day, they would be able to solve every crime. But then we would be living in a police state. Likewise, this online surveillance is an unwarranted intrusion on the ability of Canadians to go about their daily lives with some degree of privacy.

Fourth, it has been argued that people already share a great deal of information online, often through social media sites such as Facebook, that in turn harvest and sell that information. However, that is different. While there are no doubt problems with the way sites like Facebook share information, when you share information on Facebook, you at least do so knowingly and voluntarily, and subject to the terms of your user agreement and the privacy laws that govern these sites.  In the case of online spying, it is being done without your consent or knowledge, and often with little or no obvious legal justification.

But the most pernicious argument is the suggestion that online privacy is a "myth" or an "oxymoron". That members of the public should have zero expectation of privacy when they go online. That somehow, everything we do online is and should be available to anyone else, including the police if they want it.

To me, this argument misunderstands both the nature of the internet and its importance to modern-day life, and sets us on a very dangerous path with respect to the relationship between police and private citizens. It is also a self-defeating argument for those who claim they are trying to protect our children from online bullying and crime.

For starters, I don't think many people would suggest that the government should be able to randomly open and read our mail, or have unrestricted access to listen in on our private phone calls. In fact, a those things are the very hallmarks of a police state. Yet this "no privacy" argument suggests that if you send an e-mail to a friend, you should expect the government to read it, and if you use skype to call the grandkids, then you should expect the government to be listening in. The internet is an important vehicle for private communication, and people using it should enjoy the same protection as those making a phone call or mailing a letter.

Similarly, unless you are doing something illegal, the government has no legitimate interest in knowing what you are reading, or what you buy at the supermarket. Yet the "no privacy" advocates are basically suggesting that if you do your reading or your shopping online, it is fair game for a warrantless police search.

The reality is that in this day and age, many of us spend a significant part of our day online. Some of that time is spent doing things that are shared with the public (like this blog post, or things said on twitter). Some of those things we reasonably expect to remain private and confidential (like online banking, online shopping or personal e-mails). Unless we are doing something illegal, the police quite frankly have no business knowing most of what we are up to online.

Citizens in democracies have fought hard for the rights to ensure that their lives are not the subject of unwarranted government oversight. Many around the world still do not enjoy these rights. These rights are now very much under assault by laws that seem well intentioned, but which ultimately undermine important democratic safeguards. It is time for Canadians to stand up for their rights to privacy, their rights to protect their personal information and personal lives and ultimately their right to live in a free and democratic society.

Further, given that most online crime involves a breach of the victim's online privacy, it is self-defeating to combat online crime by creating even less online privacy. The cyber-surveillance provisions can and should be removed from this bill, and the government, instead of once again tacking the same old bad laws onto another Bill, needs to go back to the drawing board on its whole approach to cyber-surveillance and online privacy and security. Whether they are living online or offline, law-abiding Canadians should be entitled to go about their day to day lives without having to look over their shoulder and wonder who is watching them.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Dear Mayor and Council: Don't Destroy the Regional Plan

I have written before on Regional Planning issues in HRM.  Draft 4 of the Regional Plan is going before regional council for first reading on Tuesday, and a number of councillors have indicate their intent to seek significant amendments to the Plan.  Below is a brief open letter to Mayor and Council explaining why I think this is a bad idea. Please consider contacting the Mayor and your councillor as well.

Dear Mayor and Councillors,

As you know first reading of Draft 4 of the revised regional plan is to come before council tomorrow. I understand that some councilors plan to advance a number of amendments to the draft Plan, which include amendments to:

- have part of the Purcell’s Cove backlands re-designated from Urban Reserve to Rural Commuter;
- re-designate the entire Urban Reserve in Cherry Brook to Urban Settlement; and
- make sewer and water boundaries overlap;

Draft 4 of the Regional Plan is the result of over two years of extensive public consultation and committee work through the RP+5 process. While it is not perfect, it is a step forward from the original regional plan, and balances a number of competing interests, while making sure the Municipality is on a path to financial and environmental sustainability. The public feedback through the RP+5 Process has generally been supportive of the changes contained in Draft 4.

The proposed amendments are not minor amendments. In fact, they represent a complete abandonment of the underlying principles of the plan, including directed growth. This change of direction is being brought to council at the absolute last minute, with no meaningful public input. The proposed changes were never consulted on, and in fact fly in the face of what residents asked for in the RP+5 process.

These amendments would essentially abandon the concept of directing growth to our urban and rural growth centres in favour of allowing growth in areas where it will be expensive for the HRM to provide services. It would allow for development of areas that the community has clearly identified as wanting to preserve, such as the Purcells Cove backlands. They would represent a giant step backwards, not just from Draft 4 of the Plan, but from the 2006 Plan. To make such a significant change in direction at the last minute and contrary to public input would do irreversible damage to the public confidence in municipal decision-making processes like RP+5.

I urge you to vote against these amendments. Let us move forward with the plan the people have asked for.


Derek Simon