Last Friday’s Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in R v Spencer renders it unlawful for a telecommunications service provider (or any other commercial actor) to voluntarily identify an anonymous internet user to help the police investigate crime.
Spencer is about the means by which police have investigated the trading of child pornography on the internet – i.e., by identifying objectionable online activity that is associated with an IP address and by asking the service provider who assigned the IP address for “subscriber information” that identifies the holder of the account to which the IP address was assigned. This legality of this means of investigation – enabled by service provider cooperation – has been heavily litigated; in 2012, the Court of Appeal for Ontario held that the police do not breach section 8 of the Charter by obtaining the identity of an anonymous internet user without judicial authorization because such a user has no reasonable expectation of privacy.
The Supreme Court of Canada has now unanimously reached the opposite conclusion. The Court stayed true to the case law that establishes that the protection afforded by section 8 of the Charter should not be debased by framing the activity that the proponent seeks to protect as criminal and therefore unworthy of protection. Although the police may have an entirely legitimate interest in pursuing criminal activity that we all can observe on the open internet, the issue according to the Court was (more neutrally) whether “people generally” have a right to use the internet anonymously.
The Court said “yes” and, in doing so, offered some principled support for online anonymity. It also said that the service provider’s contractual terms and the provision of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act that allows for voluntary disclosures to law enforcement were both too ambiguous to weigh against a reasonable expectation of privacy finding.
The Court then held that police requests for subscriber information are not reasonable because they are not “authorized by law.” Notably, the Court did not consider whether the search was authorized by the common law nor did it consider the interplay between section 8 of the Charter and the common law constraint on police action, which a majority of Court said is less constraining than section 8 in R v Kang-Brown (see para 56). To the contrary, the Court’s decision in Spencer appears to be heavily driven by the proposition that the police only have the power to ask questions “relating to matters that are not subject to a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Spencer is a very significant decision on the reasonable expectation of privacy concept, internet anonymity and police powers.