The first full length episode of the new LawBytes podcast features a conversation with UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who leads the high profile investigation into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Denham, who previously served as Assistant Commissioner with the federal privacy office and as the British Columbia Information and Privacy Commissioner, reflected on her years in Canada, particularly the Canadian Facebook investigation and concerns with the Google Buzz service. Denham emphasized the need for Canadian legislative reform in order to address today’s privacy challenges. Denham was recently appointed chair of the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners, which she expects will increasingly focus on global privacy standards.
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As elected officials place Internet giants such as Google and Facebook under an increasingly intense microscope, the pressure mounts on those companies to play more proactive roles in policing content on their networks. In recent weeks, the demands have come from seemingly every direction: privacy commissioners seeking rules on the removal of search results, politicians calling for increased efforts to address fake news on Internet platforms, and Internet users wondering why the companies are slow to takedown allegedly defamatory or harmful postings.
My Globe and Mail op-ed notes Internet companies can undoubtedly do more, but laying the responsibility primarily at their feet poses its own risks as governments and regulators effectively cede responsibility for content moderation and policing to private, for-profit companies. In doing so, there is a real chance that the Internet giants will become even more powerful, limiting future competition and entrenching an uncomfortable reliance on private organizations for activities that are traditionally conducted by courts and regulators.
Facebook lost a major legal showdown at the Supreme Court of Canada last week, as the court refused to enforce a forum selection clause included in its standard online contract requiring that legal actions against it be brought in California. In doing so, the court paved the way for a privacy class action lawsuit to proceed in British Columbia under provincial privacy law.
My Globe and Mail op-ed notes that a majority of the court ruled that the unequal bargaining power between consumers and companies such as Facebook meant that the clause should not be enforced. While the ruling can be narrowly interpreted as an affirmation of the importance of privacy rights and as a rebuke to companies that seek to contract out of those rights through forum selection clauses, the decision could have a far more reaching effect, forcing a re-examination of non-negotiated online contracts.
The Supreme Court of Canada issued a landmark decision this morning on the enforceability of forum selection clauses in online contracts, rejecting Facebook’s effort to block a privacy class action lawsuit in British Columbia on the grounds that its own contract specified that legal actions be brought in California. A divided court ruled that the unequal bargaining power between consumers and companies such as Facebook – combined with the importance of privacy rights – meant that the clause should not be enforced and that the lawsuit should proceed in Canada.
The decision represents a clear recognition that courts should not be quick to allow companies to contract out of important rights by ousting local laws through forum selection clauses. More broadly, the terms found within non-negotiated take-it-or-leave it clickwrap contracts should not always be enforced by the courts, particularly where important rights or remedies might be lost by doing so. While forum selection clauses are an obvious mechanism for restricting rights, the reasoning might also be applied to other online contractual terms that seek to override important laws and protections. These could include contractual terms that seek to override copyright user rights such as fair dealing or local consumer safeguards.