Last November, then Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains introduced Bill C-11, long overdue privacy reform. The bill appeared to be a top government priority, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emphasizing that the new law would give Canadians more control over how companies handle their personal information. While the bill isn’t perfect – I wrote posts on some of the benefits and concerns – there was no debating that it represented an important step forward in modernizing Canada’s privacy law.
Yet months after the bill was introduced, it is seemingly going nowhere. The bill has been granted one day of discussion thus far in the House of Commons and that was back on November 24th when Bains opened second reading. Since then, Bains has announced that he will not be running for re-election and François-Philippe Champagne has replaced him as the ISED minister. The supplemental mandate letter to Champagne released in January does not mention privacy or the bill as a priority.
The government’s decision to bury its own privacy bill is puzzling on several fronts. First, privacy is winning political issue. While the bill will face the usual hand-wringing from business, privacy has emerged as an important public concern and the government’s failure to address it – there are no marks for merely introducing a bill and doing nothing with it – could become a sore spot in an election campaign.
Second, if the federal government does not lead on the issue, others will step in. In Canada, that means provincial legislation such as that currently working through the Quebec legislature will quickly surpass the federal law as the leading model. Further the pressure from the European Union for Canada to upgrade its law to maintain its “adequacy status” is sure to increase, potentially leading to restrictions on data transfers between Canada and the EU in the absence of reforms.
Third, the government has instead chosen to prioritize Bill C-10, introduced only weeks before the privacy bill. Bill C-10, the Broadcasting Act reform bill, is facing criticism at committee since the bill creates enormous uncertainty, is constitutionally vulnerable, undermines Parliamentary oversight, and has been backed by claims from Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault that even his own department is unable to support. While the witnesses that have long lobbied for reform provide the perfunctory support in their opening comments, some quickly revert to easily identifiable problems with the legislation that is somehow framed as saving Canadian broadcasting by eliminating Canadian ownership requirements and the prioritization of Canadian talent in productions. The bill will face years of litigation and do little to support Canadian film and television production until at least the latter half of the decade. Yet it was fast-tracked to committee without passing second reading and the subject of days of debate in the House of Commons.
Government priorities are about action, not words. This government’s decision to pick a narrow issue such as broadcast regulation over the privacy protection of millions of Canadians is hard to fathom. For those seeking modernized privacy rules, the abandonment of Bill C-11 is unlikely to be something they will soon forget.