Canada’s privacy watchdog needs more teeth, says asst. commissioner

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada may need stronger powers to deal with challenges posed by the likes of Facebook and Google, says assistant commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

Denham and Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart were present in Toronto at a consultation event April 29.

It was the first in a series of such events being organized so the office gets input on changes required to modernize Canada’s Privacy Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). The decade-old law applies to personal information used in commercial activities.

Currently the Privacy Commissioner’s office plays the role of an ombudsman and has powers to investigate, and bring a company to Federal Court. But Denham, responsible for PIPEDA, says more enforcement authority might be needed.

“Given some of the challenges we’re facing right now with new technology, we very well may need stronger powers,” she says. “We have a study underway at our office with two academics looking at whether stronger enforcement powers are warranted.”

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Academics and advertisers alike discussed the risks to privacy posed by targeted, behavioural advertising in the age of social networking.

The mechanics of opt-in and opt-out services were debated, as well as a decent model to acquire consent from online users for long-term purposes.

Yahoo’s new approach to privacy, announced in Canada this week, was highlighted by Anne Toth, head of privacy at Yahoo. It features an icon next to each ad that a user can click on for more information about delivery.

“Wherever consumers see this notice they are given the opportunity to click the icon and view information like who’s serving the ad and how you can opt out,” she says.

Consumers who are given control over what kind of ads they receive and understand how they’re being targeted are less likely to opt out of a service, says Paula Gignac, president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Canada.

She said consumers prefer targeted advertising rather than being interrupted by something they are not interested in. “The Yahoo notice is the simplicity we’re all trying to create. Users are voting with their feet and saying they like targeted advertising.”

PIPEDA is a well-crafted piece of legislation, Gignac adds. Its technology neutral stance has contributed to its lasting power.

Such legislation and a recent effort by the privacy commissioner to collaborate with international privacy authorities to slam Google Buzz has made Canada an example for privacy leadership, says Ian Kerr, the Canada research chair in ethics, law and technology at the University of Ottawa.

“It has put Canada on the international stage in terms of privacy,” he says. “The commissioner has successfully engaged with companies that fall outside of Canada’s borders.”

Facebook, for example, is currently being investigated by the commissioner’s office for the second time. Changes made last week to the social network took an approach that pushed more information out to the public domain, and side-stepped previous opt-in procedures.

“Instant personalization assures that everything you do online is a defining moment of your online identity,” Kerr says. “You’ll do so because of the convenience it offers.”

Global challenges posed by the Facebook and Google Buzz episodes will require more international collaboration, Denham says.

“The answer is in cooperative global enforcement,” she says. “We need to have global standards and a global approach to these problems as much as possible.”

The Privacy Commissioner’s office will hold more consultations Montreal on May 19, and in Calgary on June 21.

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