Teresa Scassa - Blog

Displaying items by tag: right to be forgotten

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has released its Draft Position on Online Reputation. It’s an important issue and one that is of great concern to many Canadians. In the Report, the OPC makes recommendations for legislative change and proposes other measures (education, for example) to better protect online reputation. However, the report has also generated considerable controversy for the position it has taken on how the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act currently applies in this context. In this post I will focus on the Commissioner’s expressed view that PIPEDA applies to search engine activities in a way that would allow Canadians to request the de-indexing of personal information from search engines, with the potential to complain to the Commissioner if these demands are not met.

PIPEDA applies to the collection, use and disclosure of personal information in the course of commercial activity. The Commissioner reasons, in this report, that search engines are engaged in commercial activity, even if search functions are free to consumers. An example is the placement of ads in search results. According to the Commissioner, because search engines can provide search results that contain (or lead to) personal information, these search engines are collecting, using and disclosing personal information in the course of commercial activity.

With all due respect, this view seems inconsistent with current case law. In 2010, the Federal Court in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Canada (Privacy Commissioner) ruled that an insurance company that collected personal information on behalf of an individual it was representing in a law suit was not collecting that information in the course of commercial activity. This was notwithstanding the fact that the insurance company was a commercial business. The Court was of the view that, at essence, the information was being collected on behalf of a private person (the defendant) so that he could defend a legal action (a private and non-commercial matter to which PIPEDA did not apply). Quite tellingly, at para 106, the court stated: “if the primary activity or conduct at hand, in this case the collection of evidence on a plaintiff by an individual defendant in order to mount a defence to a civil tort action, is not a commercial activity contemplated by PIPEDA, then that activity or conduct remains exempt from PIPEDA even if third parties are retained by an individual to carry out that activity or conduct on his or her behalf.”

The same reasoning applies to search engines. Yes, Google makes a lot of money, some of which comes from its search engine functions. However, the search engines are there for anyone to use, and the relevant activities, for the purposes of the application of PIPEDA, are those of the users. If a private individual carries out a Google search for his or her own purposes, that activity does not amount to the collection of personal information in the course of commercial activity. If a company does so for its commercial purposes, then that company – and not Google – will have to answer under PIPEDA for the collection, use or disclosure of that personal information. The view that Google is on the hook for all searches is not tenable. It is also problematic for the reasons set out by my colleague Michael Geist in his recent post.

I also note with some concern the way in which the “journalistic purposes” exception is treated in the Commissioner’s report. This exception is one of several designed to balance privacy with freedom of expression interests. In this context, the argument is that a search engine facilitates access to information, and is a tool used by anyone carrying out online research. This is true, and for the reasons set out above, PIPEDA does not apply unless that research is carried out in the course of commercial activities to which the statute would apply. Nevertheless, in discussing the exception, the Commissioner states:

Some have argued that search engines are nevertheless exempt from PIPEDA because they serve a journalistic or literary function. However, search engines do not distinguish between journalistic/literary material. They return content in search results regardless of whether it is journalistic or literary in nature. We are therefore not convinced that search engines are acting for “journalistic” or “literary” purposes, or at least not exclusively for such purposes as required by paragraph 4(2)(c).

What troubles me here is the statement that “search engines do not distinguish between journalistic and literary material”. They don’t need to. The nature of what is sought is not the issue. The issue is the purpose. If an individual uses Google in the course of non-commercial activity, PIPEDA does not apply. If a journalist uses Google for journalistic purposes, PIPEDA does not apply. The nature of the content that is searched is immaterial. The quote goes on to talk about whether search engines act for journalistic or literary purposes – that too is not the point. Search engines are tools. They are used by actors. It is the purposes of those actors that are material, and it is to those actors that PIPEDA will apply – if they are collecting, using or disclosing personal information in the course of commercial activity.

The Report is open for comment until April 19, 2018.

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