For most of the past decade, many people concerned with digital rights have used the Internet and social media to raise awareness in the hope that the government might pay closer attention to their views. The Canadian experience has provided more than its fair share of success stories from copyright reform to usage based billing to the Vic Toews lawful access bill. Yet in recent weeks, there has been mounting criticism about the government’s tracking of social media. This post provides a partial defence of the government, arguing that it should be tracking social media activity provided it does so for policy-making purposes.
The controversy started with news that the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has written to the government to express concern that an increasing number of government institutions are collecting publicly available personal information from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The initial report generated considerable media attention with claims that the activity may violate the Privacy Act (or at least the spirit of the legislation).
Last week, Treasury Board President Tony Clement told Jesse Brown that the collection was largely in aggregate form to track public sentiment and that a full review of current practices would be undertaken. However, a later report demonstrated that government officials tracking Bill C-30 (the earlier lawful access bill) did identify specific Twitter users and their tweets (many internal documents I’ve obtained under Access to Information suggest that the Public Safety officials have been exceptionally defensive about lawful access and often seem to drift away from a balanced position).
Second, the Privacy Act does indeed establish some limitations on the collection of personal information. Section 4 provides:
No personal information shall be collected by a government institution unless it relates directly to an operating program or activity of the institution.
If the collection of social media information falls outside of this provision, it is offside the law.
Third, there are clearly dangers of misuse, as the Cindy Blackstock case demonstrated. Using social media to target a specific individual raises serious concerns.
With those caveats, I find myself supportive of the government tracking social media activity, if for the purposes of staying current with public opinion on policy, government bills or other political issues. Facebook and Twitter are excellent sources of discussion on policy issues and government policy makers should be tracking what is said much like they monitor mainstream media reports. Too often government creates its own consultation forum that attracts little attention, while the public actively discusses the issue on social media sites. It seems to me that the public benefits when the government pays attention to this discussion. Users that tweet “at” a minister or use a searchable hashtag are surely hoping that someone pays attention to their comment. To see that government officials are tracking these tweets is a good thing, representing a win for individuals that speak out on public policy.
There certainly needs to be policies that ensure that the information is used appropriately and in compliance with the law, but if the current controversy leads to warnings against any tracking of social media, I fear that would represent a huge loss for many groups that have fought to have the government to pay more attention to their concerns.