Responding to years of consumer frustration with the state of Canadian wireless pricing, Canada’s political parties have propelled the issue on to the election campaign agenda. The telecom giants will disagree, but study after study has found that Canadians pay more for wireless services than consumers in most other developed economies. But though just about everyone agrees we have a problem, my Globe and Mail op-ed notes there remains considerable debate over what to do about it.
Four years ago, then-prime minister Stephen Harper used the first week of the 2015 federal election campaign to pledge that if re-elected his government would not institute a Netflix tax. My Globe and Mail op-ed notes that the Liberals responded with a no Netflix tax promise of their own, which became government policy when Justin Trudeau was elected a few months later. Yet as Canada heads toward another election this fall, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and his party seem ready to place the spotlight on Netflix taxes once again. Only this time, the government will call out opposition parties that do not commit to new Internet taxes.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced plans last week for a new Canadian digital charter featuring penalties for social media companies that fail to combat online extremism. While the just-released proposed charter does indeed envision increased regulation of the tech sector, my Globe and Mail op-ed argues its foundation is not content-regulation but rather stronger rules on how companies use data. Leading the way is a promised overhaul of Canadian privacy law to ensure it is better suited to the challenges posed by a data-driven economy.
The proposed privacy law reforms seek to strike the balance between supporting an innovation-led economic agenda heavily reliant on access to data with mounting public concern over the use of that data without appropriate safeguards or consent. If enacted – the digital charter includes a detailed background paper on privacy law reforms that suggests legislative action will only come after the fall election – the changes would constitute the most significant privacy law amendments in decades.
It has long been an article of faith among privacy watchers that Canada features better privacy protection than the United States. While the U.S. relies on binding enforcement of privacy policies alongside limited sector-specific rules for children and video rentals, Canada’s private sector privacy law (PIPEDA or the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act), which applies broadly to all commercial activities, has received the European Union’s stamp of approval, and has a privacy commissioner charged with investigating complaints.
Despite its strength on paper, my Globe and Mail op-ed notes the Canadian approach emphasizes rules over enforcement, which runs the risk of leaving the public woefully unprotected. PIPEDA establishes requirements to obtain consent for the collection, use and disclosure of personal information, but leaves the Privacy Commissioner of Canada with limited tools to actually enforce the law. In fact, the not-so-secret shortcoming of Canadian law is that the federal commissioner cannot order anyone to do much of anything. Instead, the office is limited to issuing non-binding findings and racing to the federal court if an organization refuses to comply with its recommendations.
Faced with a decades-old private-sector privacy law that is no longer fit for the purpose in the digital age, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) has embarked on a dramatic reinterpretation of the law premised on incorporating new consent requirements. My Globe and Mail op-ed notes the strained interpretation arose last Tuesday when the OPC released a consultation paper signalling a major shift in its position on cross-border data transfers.