Abandoned border by mtsrs (CC BY 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/49aR7g
One week after the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled that it could order Google to remove websites from its global index, the same court (but different judges) ruled that a privacy class action lawsuit against Facebook could not proceed in the province because the Facebook terms and conditions provide that all disputes must be resolved in a court in Santa Clara, California. The decision should provide a wake-up call to users and policy makers because an absolute approach to terms and conditions not only means that Canadian courts may be unable resolve consumer disputes involving companies like Facebook, but that Canadian law will not apply either.
The current Facebook terms and conditions state:
You will resolve any claim, cause of action or dispute (claim) you have with us arising out of or relating to this Statement or Facebook exclusively in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California or a state court located in San Mateo County, and you agree to submit to the personal jurisdiction of such courts for the purpose of litigating all such claims. The laws of the State of California will govern this Statement, as well as any claim that might arise between you and us, without regard to conflict of law provisions.
While this appears to be slightly different from the terms that governed the dispute before the B.C. courts (it referenced courts in Santa Clara county), the key takeaway from the decision goes well beyond a proposed class action lawsuit over a Facebook “sponsored stories” program that no longer exists. The trial judge rightly noted that the heart of the case is whether online terms and conditions override domestic legal protections (in this case, the B.C. Privacy Act).
The B.C. Court of Appeal has released its decision in Equustek Solutions Inc. v. Jack, a closely watched case involving a court order requiring Google to remove websites from its global index. As I noted in a post on the lower court decision, rather than ordering the company to remove certain links from the search results available through Google.ca, the order intentionally targets the entire database, requiring the company to ensure that no one, anywhere in the world, can see the search results. That post notes:
The implications are enormous since if a Canadian court has the power to limit access to information for the globe, presumably other courts would as well. While the court does not grapple with this possibility, what happens if a Russian court orders Google to remove gay and lesbian sites from its database? Or if Iran orders it remove Israeli sites from the database? The possibilities are endless since local rules of freedom of expression often differ from country to country.
The B.C. Court of Appeal decision addresses two key jurisdiction questions: first, whether the court can assert jurisdiction over Google; and second, whether the court order can extend beyond Canada.
The challenge of jurisdiction and the Internet has long been one of the most contentious online legal issues. Given that the Internet has little regard for conventional borders, the question of whose law applies, which court gets to apply it, and how it can be enforced is seemingly always a challenge.
Striking the right balance can be exceptionally difficult: if courts are unable to assert jurisdiction, the Internet becomes a proverbial “wild west” with no applicable law. Conversely, if every court asserts jurisdiction, the Internet becomes over-regulated with a myriad of potentially conflicting laws vying to govern online activities.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that in recent years, courts in many countries have adopted a reasonable balance where they are willing to assert jurisdiction over online activities or companies where there is a “real and substantial” connection, but they limit the scope of enforcing their rulings to their own jurisdiction. In other words, companies cannot disregard local laws where they operate there, but courts similarly should not disregard the prospect of conflicting rules between different countries.
In the aftermath of the European Court of Justice “right to be forgotten” decision, many asked whether a similar ruling could arise in Canada. While a privacy-related ruling has yet to hit Canada, last week the Supreme Court of British Columbia relied in part on the decision in issuing an unprecedented order requiring Google to remove websites from its global index. The ruling in Equustek Solutions Inc. v. Jack is unusual since its reach extends far beyond Canada. Rather than ordering the company to remove certain links from the search results available through Google.ca, the order intentionally targets the entire database, requiring the company to ensure that no one, anywhere in the world, can see the search results. Note that this differs from the European right to be forgotten ruling, which is limited to Europe.
The implications are enormous since if a Canadian court has the power to limit access to information for the globe, presumably other courts would as well. While the court does not grapple with this possibility, what happens if a Russian court orders Google to remove gay and lesbian sites from its database? Or if Iran orders it remove Israeli sites from the database? The possibilities are endless since local rules of freedom of expression often differ from country to country. Yet the B.C. court adopts the view that it can issue an order with global effect. Its reasoning is very weak, concluding that:
the injunction would compel Google to take steps in California or the state in which its search engine is controlled, and would not therefore direct that steps be taken around the world. That the effect of the injunction could reach beyond one state is a separate issue.
Unfortunately, it does not engage effectively with this “separate issue.”
Last October, the CRTC announced that it was taking action against two India-based companies for violating Canada’s do-not-call list. The action against Pecon Software Limited was particularly noteworthy, as the Commission ordered a stop to the violations and payment of $495,000. Andrea Rosen, the CRTC’s Chief Compliance and Enforcement Officer was quoted as saying that “foreign-based telemarketers have been put on notice that they must comply with our rules when calling Canadians.”
The tough talk was welcome, but months later, the CRTC has struggled to get Pecon Software to pay up. Liberal MP Lawrence MacAulay asked the government to provide an update on the action and Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore provided the following update to the House of Commons on Friday: