Teresa Scassa - Blog

This post is based upon a presentation I gave at a panel organized jointly by the Centre for Law, Technology and Society and the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa on February 1, 2017.

Canada is on the cusp of passing new legislation and enacting new regulations that will put us among a growing number of countries that have made plain packaging mandatory for tobacco products. Bill S-5, currently before the Senate, will amend the Tobacco Act to enable regulations to dictate the appearance of tobacco packaging. While the regulations are not currently available, it is to be expected that they will contain measures similar to those already introduced in Australia and Britain. Essentially plain packaging means prescribing a plain colour, size and configuration for all tobacco packages. In addition, packages will be used to convey graphic images and public health warnings. The only permitted use of tobacco trademarks will be of word marks consisting of the brand name and sub name in a prescribed font, colour and type-size. Tobacco trademarks consisting of logos, crests, images, colour, shape, configuration, or design will no longer be capable of use on tobacco product packaging.

Plain packaging is a movement driven by the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, of which Canada is a signatory. Interestingly, however, the treaty does not require signatories to implement plain packaging. Article 11 of the Convention addresses packaging, but merely requires that false and deceptive elements on packaging be banned (e.g. using “mild” to designate cigarettes that are every bit as harmful as regular cigarettes); that health warnings take up 30-50% of packaging surface; and that packages contain information about constituent ingredients and product emissions. Canada’s current packaging regulations are consistent with these requirements. Plain packaging is merely mentioned as something that signatory states “should consider” in paragraph 46 of the Guidelines for Implementing Article 11 of the Convention. Thus, it is important to underline that Canada is not under an international obligation to introduce plain packaging legislation.

While the link between smoking and serious illness/death seems uncontestable, and the reduction of smoking is clearly an important public health objective, there is reason to question the wisdom of the plain packaging approach. Australia was the first country to introduce plain packaging in 2011. Its legislation survived a constitutional challenge (it was argued to be an illegal expropriation of trademark owners’ rights), and is currently being challenged before the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a violation of Australia’s obligations under the TRIPS Agreement. Although considerable sums of money have been spent on defending Australia’s statute, the evidence emerging as to the beneficial impact of the legislation is ambivalent.

Plain packaging measures in Canada are also likely to face legal challenges. Restrictions on the use of trademarks in the 1988 Tobacco Products Control Act were found by the Supreme Court of Canada to be a violation of the freedom of expression of trademark owners that could not be justified under s. 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These provisions were struck down by the Court. Provisions related to the use of tobacco trademarks in sponsorship activities in a reconstituted Tobacco Act were also challenged for violating the freedom of expression, but the Supreme Court in 2007 found that the violation was justified as rationally connected to a pressing and substantial government objective, and that it minimally impaired the rights concerned. The takeaway from these cases is that restrictions on the use of tobacco trademarks (such as those necessary to implement plain packaging) clearly violate the freedom of expression. In any court challenge, therefore, the issue will be whether the measures can be justified under s. 1 of the Charter as a “reasonable limit, demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. It is important to remember that plain packaging restrictions are extreme and the evidence linking plain packaging to harm reduction is ambivalent. It is not obvious at the outset that such measures would survive a Charter challenge.

Trademark owners have also objected that the restrictions will harm their ability to acquire and maintain trademark rights in relation to tobacco products. Bill S-5 contains provisions that indicate that non-use of tobacco trademarks resulting from plain packaging regulations will not be a basis for the invalidation of existing registered trademarks. However, this does not settle the question. Trademark rights cannot be acquired (or maintained) at common law without use, and the law does nothing to address this category of rights. Further, certain kinds of trademarks (distinguishing guises, three-dimensional marks and other non-traditional subject marks soon to become registrable in Canada) cannot be registered until they have acquired distinctiveness through use. Plain packaging regulations might therefore constitute a bar to the registration of certain types of trademarks for use in relation to tobacco products.

Canada’s existing international obligations under both the TRIPS Agreement and the NAFTA may lead to further challenges to the introduction of plain packaging. The creation of an impediment to the registration of certain types of trademarks for tobacco products may violate Article 15 of TRIPS, and there is an open and ongoing debate as to whether plain packaging laws also violate Article 20 which provides that “The use of a trademark in the course of trade shall not be unjustifiably encumbered by special requirements, such as use with another trademark, use in a special form or use in a manner detrimental to its capability to distinguish the goods or services of one undertaking from those of other undertakings.. . “. Australia’s legislation has been challenged under TRIPS, and a decision on its compliance with that treaty may be imminent.

For its part, Article 1110 of the NAFTA provides that no member state can take a measure that is “tantamount to expropriation” of an investment except in limited circumstances which include a requirement to pay compensation. It is not clear whether a U.S.-based tobacco company could succeed before a NAFTA tribunal in arguing that the plain packaging laws amounted to an expropriation of their investment in their trademarks. The domestic challenge to Australia’s legislation turned on a property rights clause in the Australian constitution, and raised the question of whether the plain packaging was an expropriation of trademark rights. The majority of the court found that it did not, but of course that decision would not be binding on a NAFTA tribunal.

The plain packaging regulations on the horizon for Canada are being introduced in the face of considerable uncertainty as to their legality both under Canada’s constitution and Canada’s international trade obligations. The extensive resources required to defend such measures should be weighed carefully not just against the likelihood of success of any challenges, but also against the public health benefits that are likely to flow from further changes to how tobacco products are packaged in Canada.

It is perhaps also worth noting that there have been rumblings about plain packaging measures for other products considered harmful to public health, such as alcoholic beverages and junk food. The issues raised in relation to tobacco products have much broader implications, making this file one to watch.

Published in Trademarks

How does one balance transparency with civil liberties in the context of election campaigns? This issue is at the core of a decision just handed down by the Supreme Court of Canada.

B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association v. Attorney-General (B.C.) began as a challenge by the appellant organization to provisions of B.C.’s Election Act that required individuals or organizations who “sponsor election advertising” to register with the Chief Electoral Officer. Information on the register is publicly available. The underlying public policy goals to allow the public to see who is sponsoring advertising campaigns during the course of elections. The Supreme Court of Canada easily found this objective to be “pressing and substantial”.

The challenge brought by the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (BCFIPA) was based on the way in which the registration requirement was framed in the Act. The Canada Elections Act also contains a registration requirement, but the requirement is linked to a spending threshold. In other words, under the federal statute, those who spend more than $500 on election advertising are required to register; others are not. The B.C. legislation is framed instead in terms of a general registration requirement for all sponsors of election advertising. BCFIPA’s concern was that this would mean that any individual who placed a handmade sign in their window, who wore a t-shirt with an election message, or who otherwise promoted their views during an election campaign would be forced to register. Not only might this chill freedom of political expression in its own right, it would raise significant privacy issues for individuals since they would have to disclose not just their names, but their addresses and other contact information in the register. Thus, the BCFIPA sought to have the registration requirement limited by the Court to only those who spent more than $500 on an election campaign.

The problem in this case was exacerbated by the position taken by B.C.’s Chief Electoral Officer. In a 2010 report to the B.C. legislature, he provided his interpretation of the application of the legislation. He expressed the view that it did not “distinguish between those sponsors conducting full media campaigns and individuals who post handwritten signs in their apartment windows.” (at para 19). This interpretation of the Election Act was accepted by both the trial judge and at the Court of Appeal, and it shaped the argument before those courts as well as their decisions.

The Supreme Court of Canada took an entirely different approach. They interpreted the language “sponsor election advertising” to mean something other than the expression of political views by individuals. In other words, the statute applied only to those who sponsored election advertising – i.e., those who paid for election advertising to be conducted or who received such services as a contribution. The Court was of the view that the public policy behind registration requirements was generally sound. It found that a legislature could mitigate the impact on freedom of expression by either setting a monetary threshold to trigger the requirement (as is the case at the federal level) or by defining sponsorship to exclude individual expression (as was the case in B.C.). While it is true that the B.C. statute could still capture organized activities involving expenditures of less than $500, and might thus have some limiting effect, the Court found that this would not be significant for a number of reasons, and that such impacts were easily reconcilable with the benefits of the registration scheme.

The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada will be useful in clarifying the scope and impact of the Election Act and in providing guidance for similar statutes. It should be noted however, that the case traveled to the Supreme Court of Canada at great cost both to BCFIPA and to the taxpayer because of either legislative inattention to the need to clarify the scope of the legislation or because of an over-zealous interpretation of the statute by the province’s Chief Electoral Officer. The situation highlights the need for careful attention to be paid at the outset of such initiatives to the balance that must be struck between transparency and other competing values such as civil liberties and privacy.

 

Published in Privacy

Just over a year ago, in Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta v. United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 401 the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Alberta’s Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) on the basis that it violated the freedom of expression guaranteed by s. 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom. The case arose after a union was found to have violated PIPA by collecting and using video and photo images of people crossing its picket lines in the course of a labour dispute without the consent of those individuals. The union was ultimately successful in its arguments that the limitations on the collection, use and disclosure of personal information without consent contained in PIPA violated their freedom of expression. (You can read more about this decision in my early blog post here).

As a remedy, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the entire statute, but put in place a suspension of invalidity for a period of year. This amount of time was considered reasonable for the Alberta legislature to amend the legislation to bring it into conformity with the Charter. The year passed without legislative action, and at the last minute the government scrambled to obtain an extension. The Court granted a six month extension on October 30, 2014.

The Alberta government has now introduced a bill to amend PIPA to bring it into conformity with the Charter. Bill 3 is framed in fairly narrow terms. In essence, it creates a new exception to the general rule that there can be no collection, use or disclosure of personal information without consent. This exception is specifically for trade unions. The collection, use or disclosure without consent is permissible if it is “for the purpose of informing or persuading the public about a matter of significant public interest or importance relating to a labour relations dispute involving the trade union” (proposed new sections 14.1, 17.1, and 20.1). The information collected, used or disclosed must be “reasonably necessary” for that purpose, and, in the circumstances, it must be reasonable to collect, use or disclose that information without consent.

The new provisions attempt to strike a balance between the right to privacy and the freedom of expression of trade unions. While it will now be permissible to collect, use or disclose personal information without consent in the context of a labour dispute, there is no blank cheque. Rather than exempt trade unions from the application of PIPA altogether, the new provisions set out the circumstances in which unions may act, and these actions will be under the supervision of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC). A person whose information is collected, used or disclosed without their consent by a union may still complain to the OIPC; the OIPC will get to determine if the union’s purpose was to inform or persuade the public “about a matter of significant public interest or importance relating to a labour relations dispute involving the trade union” This wording is interesting – actions by a trade union taken in support of another trade union may not qualify, nor may actions carried out by a trade union to protest a government’s policies. Further, an adjudicator might decide that the information was collected, used or disclosed in relation to a matter that was not of significant public interest or importance. Whether this exception strikes the right balance is an open question which may arise in the course of some future dispute.

The issue of the balance between the freedom of expression and privacy is an extremely interesting one, and it arises in other contexts under private sector data protection legislation. These competing rights are purportedly balanced, for example, by provisions that exempt journalistic, artistic and literary endeavors from the application of the statute in certain circumstances. However, as the United Food case demonstrates, these exceptions do not necessarily capture all of the actors who may have information of public interest that they wish to communicate. A few years ago I wrote an article about the “journalistic purposes” exception that is found in Alberta’s PIPA, as well as in B.C.’s Personal Information Protection Act and the federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. I argue that this exception may not strike the right balance between the right to journalistic freedom of expression and privacy. In the first place, it is not clear who is meant to be entitled to the exception (what are journalistic, artistic or literary purposes, and who gets to assert them?) Secondly, the exceptions are structured so that once it is decided that the acts in question fall within the exception, there can be no oversight to determine whether the manner in which the personal information was collected, used or disclosed went beyond what was reasonable for the legitimate information of the public.

Although the United Food saga may be approaching its close, the issues around the balance between freedom of expression and privacy are far from being resolved. Expect to see these issues surfacing in cases arising under private sector data protection legislation (as was the case with United Food) as well as in other privacy contexts as well.

Note: I recently posted about a privacy law suit that raised freedom of expression issues. It can be found here.

 

Published in Privacy
Thursday, 20 November 2014 11:05

New Interactive Map of Censorship in Canada

Today a group of Canadian civil liberties organizations launched an interactive map of Canada which allows users to document and display instances of chilling of free expression in Canada. The Censorship Tracker is sponsored by PEN Canada, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Canadian Journalists for Freedom of Expression.

Interactive maps offer a great way to visualize information and to situate it in a geographic context. According to a press release issued by the sponsoring organizations, the Censorship Tracker is meant to be “an accessible and reliable resource that Canadians can use to gauge restrictions on free speech in Canada.” The map allows users to view dots reflecting all posted instances of limitations on freedom of expression, or to view instances based upon the type of limitation (suppression of personal correspondence, the banning of books, limits on public protest, and so on). Data can also be filtered based on other criteria such as the source of the threat (government, corporation, media, academic institution, and so on), the method used to limit expression, and the target of the limitation. There is also a filter to allow one to see whether the report of a limitation has been verified. The website allows users to file reports on incidents that can be added to the map.

Of course, one person’s free expression is sometimes another person’s crime, and not all reported examples will be what all Canadians unequivocally consider to be unwarranted limits on free expression. Nevertheless, the goal of the map is both to assist the organizations in responding to threats to freedom of expression by allowing for broad-based, crowd-sourced data collection, and to allow Canadians to access and visualize reported instances.

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