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Friday, 26 September 2014 10:20
A year ago in November, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Alberta’s Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) on the basis that it violated freedom of expression guaranteed by s. 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom. It did so by not appropriately striking the balance between the rights of striking works to express themselves in the context of a labour dispute and the privacy rights of others. In Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta v. United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 401, an adjudicator under PIPA had ruled that the Union’s practice of taking photographs and videotapes of people crossing its picket line during a labour dispute – and of using some of the footage on its website – contravened the data protection legislation. (The case is discussed in more detail in an earlier blog post here). The Union countered (ultimately, successfully) that to require it to seek consent to the collection and use of this personal information would infringe its rights to freedom of expression.
Where legislation violates a Charter right, a court has various options. Here, both the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta and the Attorney General of that province had asked the Court to strike down the legislation if it were found unconstitutional, rather than to perform judicial surgery on it. The Court agreed this was the better option, writing: “Given the comprehensive and integrated structure of the statute, we do not think it is appropriate to pick and choose among the various amendments that would make PIPA constitutionally compliant.” (at para 40). The Court added a one year period in which the declaration of the legislation’s invalidity was suspended. This would allow the law to remain operative in the province, giving the legislature what was clearly thought to be ample time to introduce the amendment or amendments necessary to bring the statute into compliance with the Charter.
A one-year suspension of invalidity might suffice where a government is functioning as its citizens have a right to expect. However in an age of increasingly dysfunctional governments the Charter remedy of striking down entire statutes with a one-year suspension of invalidity may be a riskier gambit. It has certainly proved to be so in this case. Recognizing that it cannot get amendment’s through by the November 15 deadline set by the Supreme Court of Canada, the Alberta Government as now asked the Court for an extension. The Court is likely to grant the extension – to do otherwise would result in a state of chaos in Alberta as far as private sector data protection is concerned.
Monday, 15 September 2014 08:25
A recent decision of the Federal Court highlights the need for reform to the official marks regime under the Trade-marks Act.
As discussed in an earlier blog post, official marks are a kind of ‘super trade-mark’ available to ‘public authorities’ in Canada. A public authority has been interpreted by the courts as an entity that is under government control and that acts for the public benefit. Official marks are not subject to the rigors of regular applications to register trademarks – there is no examination, no opposition proceeding and no need for the public authority to avoid choosing a mark that may be confusing with an already registered trademark. Once the Registrar gives notice of an official mark, it is protected almost in perpetuity – there is no need to renew such a mark, and there is no administrative process by which unused official marks can be removed. Official marks, even if long unused, therefore, remain a barrier to the registration of regular trademarks, since the adoption, use or registration of a mark “so nearly resembling as to be likely to be mistaken for” an official mark is prohibited.
This was the difficulty faced by the applicant in TCC Holdings Inc. v. Families as Support Teams Society. TCC Holdings sought judicial review of a 1996 decision of the Registrar to give public notice of the mark FAST. The request for public notice of the adoption of this mark came from a registered charity. In 2003, the Federal Court of Appeal confirmed that charitable status was not sufficient to make an organization a ‘public authority’ within the meaning of the Act. Thus, registered charities are not entitled to hold official marks and must apply for trademarks in the usual way. However, since the Trade-marks Act provides for no mechanism to remove official marks, the FAST mark remained on the register of trademarks. To make matters worse, the entity that held this official mark had its charitable status revoked in 2006, and was dissolved in 2007. The mark FAST nonetheless remained on the register. Its presence proved a barrier to TCC Holdings, which had applied in 2011 to register the trademark FAST, and was told that its application was barred due to the presence of the official mark.
TCC Holdings was successful in its application for judicial review to have the official mark removed from the register. Ultimately, however, in order to register its mark, it was subject to delays and to the added expense of an application for judicial review to the Federal Court. None of this should be necessary – the official marks regime is broken, and is very much in need of repair.
In the last session of Parliament, a Private Members Bill (Bill C-611) was introduced by Liberal MP Geoff Regan with a view to reforming the official marks provisions of the Trade-marks Act. The Bill was not considered before the session ended, and it is hoped it will receive due attention. Among other things, the bill proposes a 10 year term of protection for official marks. This term may be renewed, but in cases where the mark has ceased to be used, it will fall off the register, clearing the way for trademark registrations. As the TCC Holdings Inc. case shows, reform of this kind is still sorely needed.
Wednesday, 03 September 2014 09:01
I’m pleased to say that after many years of hard work, my co-authored book with Stephen Coughlan, Robert Currie and Hugh Kindred has just been published by Irwin Law. The book, titled Law Beyond Borders: Extraterritorial Jurisdiction in an Age of Globalization, explores the reach of law beyond state borders from a Canadian perspective. We examine the scope of the legal and practical power of Canada to assert (and to respond to) foreign assertions of extraterritorial jurisdiction. We also develop an analytical framework to guide both law and policy makers faced with the issue of whether to act extraterritorially.
Our book begins with a consideration of the twin forces of globalization and technological change, and the way in which both forces have led to a significant increase in the number of instances in which states may feel the need to act extraterritorially. We also consider how these forces have also undermined the Westphalian notion of exclusive territorial sovereignty. We then review the status quo regarding state jurisdiction both in Canada and internationally, before articulating an important distinction between extraterritoriality, and extended territoriality. Particular consideration is given in this respect to the context of the Internet. The book then poses the question as to when it is appropriate for a state to act extraterritorially. Seven case studies are offered, including the application of human rights law, accountability for human rights abuses, transnational data protection, international terrorism, child sex tourism, internet gambling, and virtual worlds. The book concludes with an articulation of our analytical framework.
Wednesday, 02 July 2014 07:07
The public-oriented goals of the open government movement promise increased transparency and accountability of governments, enhanced citizen engagement and participation, improved service delivery, economic development and the stimulation of innovation. In part, these goals are to be achieved by making more and more government information public in reusable formats and under open licences. The Canadian federal government has committed to open government, and is currently seeking input on its implementation plan. The Ontario government is also in the process of developing an open government plan, and other provinces are at different stages of development of open government. Progress is also occurring at the municipal level across Canada, with notable open data and/or open government initiatives in Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa (to give a few examples).
Yet open government brings with it some privacy challenges that are not explicitly dealt with in existing laws for the protection of privacy. While there is some experience with these challenges in the access to information context (where privacy interests are routinely balanced against the goals of transparency and accountability (and see my posting on a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision on this issue), this experience may not be well adapted to developments such as open data and proactive disclosure, nor may it be entirely suited to the dramatic technological changes that have affected our information environment. In a recent open-access article, I identify three broad privacy challenges raised by open government. The first is how to balance privacy with transparency and accountability in the context of “public” personal information (for example, registry information that may now be put online and broadly shared). The second challenge flows from the disruption of traditional approaches to privacy based on a collapse of the distinctions between public and private sector actors. The third challenge is that of the potential for open government data—even if anonymized—to contribute to the big data environment in which citizens and their activities are increasingly monitored and profiled.
I invite you to have a look at this article, which is published in (2014) 6 Future Internet 397-413.
Friday, 20 June 2014 06:14
The U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) has finally ruled on a dispute involving the legitimacy of the Washington Redskins ‘Redskins’ trademarks. In a 2-1 decision in Blackhorse v. ProFootball, Inc.,, the Board ruled that at the time of its registration in the 1960s, the term “redskins” was disparaging to Native Americans. Since U.S. trademark legislation bars the registration of trademarks that are scandalous, immoral or disparaging, the decision that this term was disparaging at the time of its registration means that the registrations of 6 marks featuring the term “Redskins” are invalid. The result is that these trademarks will be struck from the trademarks register (pending the inevitable appeals). The team’s logo was not part of the challenge and remains a registered trademark.
There has long been controversy over the football team’s name – a previous challenge to the trademarks’ validity was unsuccessful due to procedural defects. There have also been repeated calls for the team to change its name voluntarily. More recently, President Obama suggested that it was time for the Redskins to choose a new name. The Redskins’ owner, Dan Snyder, has so far resisted calls for change, and he has indicated that the organization will appeal the TTAB decision.
It should be noted that even if the TTAB decision is upheld, the team will not be forced to change its name. The loss of the trademark registration is not a ban on using the name. It does mean, however, that the Redskins organization will lose the (substantial and significant) benefits of holding a registered trademark. They will lose national protection for the mark, making it much more difficult for them to protect the name against use by others.
As I noted in an earlier post regarding controversy in Canada around the adoption of the same name for a youth amateur football club, the Washington Redskins currently hold registered trademarks in Canada for both their team name and logo. These marks were registered in the 1980s. Although Canada’s Trade-marks Act does not specifically bar marks that are “disparaging”, it does have a clause that renders unregistrable those marks that are “scandalous, obscene or immoral”. Since a mark that falls into this category is not registrable, it is possible to challenge the validity of the trademark on the basis that it was not registrable at the time of registration. No one has yet brought such a challenge to the Redskins’ marks in Canada. There is very little case law in Canada on the scope or interpretation of “scandalous, obscene or immoral”, and, particularly in light of the TTAB decision in the U.S., it would be interesting to see what the outcome of such a proceeding might be.
Monday, 16 June 2014 09:37
On June 13, the Supreme Court of Canada released its much awaited decision in Spencer v. The Queen. The core issue in this crucially important privacy case was whether there was a reasonable expectation of privacy in Internet Service Provider (ISP) subscriber information linked to a particular Internet Protocol (IP) address. Although privacy experts have for some time considered this question to be a no-brainer, the federal government had stubbornly held to the position that customer name and address information, viewed in isolation, was the kind of data in which none of us has a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Concurrent with the deliberations of the Supreme Court of Canada in Spencer were debates in the House of Commons and in Committee over the Conservative government’s controversial Bill C-13. This Bill will further pave the way for government authorities to gain easy and warrantless access to subscriber information. Among other things, the Bill gives ISPs immunity from any liability for handing subscriber information over to police without notice to or consent from their customers, and upon a simple request for this information to be shared.
Even prior to Bill C-13, provisions in both the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) and the Criminal Code had been argued to grant permission to private sector companies to share personal information with authorities, at the request of those authorities, without a warrant and without notice or consent to the affected customers. The application of these provisions had led to numerous Charter challenges in the lower courts, and these courts were divided as to the interpretation these clauses should be given. Essentially, although the anonymous IP address could reveal a trail of internet-based activities, Crown lawyers argued (and some courts accepted) that the police were ultimately only seeking a simple name and address – information in which there could be little expectation of privacy – and no warrant was required.
The Supreme Court of Canada itself had been a bit iffy when it came to informational privacy. A number of split decisions in the past years showed a lack of consensus on key privacy issues, and some recent decisions were not particularly privacy-friendly. In 2004, a narrow majority of the Supreme Court of Canada found that infra-red technology used by police in fly-overs to measure the heat signature of houses was not privacy invasive, because it did not lead to precise inferences about activities taking place in the house (notwithstanding the fact that the police used the technology to draw inferences regarding the presence of a grow-ops the accused’s home). There was genuine concern that this approach placed an artificial distance between the individual and the information that could be gleaned about their activities through technology. This concern was augmented by the Court’s 2010 decision in R. v. Gomboc, where 4 of the judges found that a very precise recording of daily patterns of electrical use in a home “reveals nothing about the intimate or core personal activities of the occupants. It reveals nothing but one particular piece of information: the consumption of electricity.” (at para 14). This approach, which distanced particular pieces of information from the inferences that could be drawn from them, and that minimized the importance of the decontextualized information, was a matter of great concern to privacy advocates.
This is why the Court’s unanimous decision in Spencer v. the Queen is so important, and why so many privacy advocates awaited it with both anticipation and dread. It is perhaps fortuitous that the backdrop to the Supreme Court of Canada’s deliberations in Spencer was one of ongoing disclosures by Edward Snowden of intrusive and warrantless government surveillance of the online activities of individuals in Canada and elsewhere, and the heated debates over the Conservative government’s latest attempt to facilitate police access to information about Canadians’ online and mobile activities.
The Court in Spencer dismissed the approach that separated the name and address information from the information gleaned from the IP address. Justice Cromwell wrote: “the subject matter of the search is the identity of a subscriber whose Internet connection is linked to particular, monitored Internet activity.” (at para 33). He found as well that anonymity is an important dimension of privacy – one that is “particularly important in the context of Internet usage.” (at para 45) Noting that there is an almost unavoidable tracking of individual activity on the Internet, Justice Cromwell wrote:
The user cannot fully control or even necessarily be aware of who may observe a pattern of online activity, but by remaining anonymous — by guarding the link between the information and the identity of the person to whom it relates — the user can in large measure be assured that the activity remains private. (at para 46)
According to the Court subscriber information links certain types of information to identifiable individuals, and is thus revelatory of a great deal more information than simply a name and address. This in turn triggers a strong privacy interest.
On the issue of the provisions of both PIPEDA and the Criminal Code that permit companies to voluntarily share personal information with law enforcement officials, the Court ruled that these provisions do not override a reasonable expectation of privacy. Since a request by police for subscriber identification engages this privacy interest, it amounts to a search for which a warrant is required. The permissive provision in PIPEDA depends upon police having a lawful authority to obtain the information sought – if a warrant is required, then a request absent a warrant is not made with lawful authority. The Court also ruled that s. 487.014 of the Criminal Code merely confirms existing police powers to make enquiries, but does not give them any authority to circumvent requirements to obtain a warrant.
Tuesday, 10 June 2014 14:45
After years of neglect, trademark law reform is now all the rage in Canada. Presently, two government bills propose major amendments to the Trade-marks Act – those in the Budget Implementation Act have proven highly controversial; those in Bill C-8 would introduce major changes, although these are less controversial. Yesterday, Liberal MP Geoff Regan introduced a private member’s bill, Bill C-611, which has as its goal the overhaul of official marks under the Trade-marks Act.
Interestingly enough, neither of the government’s trademark law reform bills tackles official marks, notwithstanding that the Report of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology in March 2013 on the Intellectual Property Regime in Canada recommended that something be done about these marks. Specifically, the report stated:
The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada introduce legislation which amends parts of the Trade-marks Act dealing with official marks to restrict the scope of official marks to important national government symbols and to narrow the definition of public authorities to avoid stifling innovation and distorting markets.
Official marks are a rather unique Canadian creation. Essentially, they allow “public authorities” to bypass the normal procedures (including all of the checks and balances present in the Act) for obtaining a trademark. Instead of applying for a trademark – which is then examined and opened for opposition to insure that it is indeed registrable and does not trample on the trademark rights of others – a “public authority” need only ask the Registrar of Trademarks to give public notice of its adoption and use of an official mark. There are no limits to official marks – they can be identical to or confusing with existing marks, and they can be generic, descriptive or deceptively misdescriptive. Further, unlike regular trademarks which can expire if the registration is not renewed, or which can be lost for non-use, official marks are potentially perpetual.
One of the reasons for the creation of the category of official marks, was perhaps, to save governments from the costs of registering and maintaining trademarks in relation to their various programs and services. While this might be an acceptable rationale for government programs and services in the strict sense, it makes less sense for government entities engaged in the marketing of alcohol and gaming to be exempt from the traditional rules (and checks and balances) of the trademark system.
In addition, until the Federal Court began its attempts to reign in official marks in the early 2000’s, the concept of a “public authority” was rather vague, leading to a flood of bogus official marks. And once public notice is declared, there is no mechanism in place to permit an easy removal of the mark – judicial review must be sought in the Federal Court of the Registrar’s decision to give public notice. This places a costly onus on businesses or other entities that run up against rogue official marks. For example, the Canadian Jewish Congress was obliged to go to court to reverse the decision to allow a U.S.-based evangelical church with a mission to convert Jews to Christianity to hold an official mark for the menorah. In 2005 I wrote an article about a battle between a private company, the Bluenose Heritage Preservation Trust Society and a Nova Scotia business over licensing fees that the Society sought to charge for the use of the name and image of the iconic Nova Scotia schooner. The Society had obtained official marks related to the Bluenose, notwithstanding that it was difficult to see how it qualified as a public authority. The litigation came to an end when the Province of Nova Scotia intervened. The Province subsequently sought to have notice given for its own Bluenose official marks. It is an illustration of the multiple defects of this regime that if you search the trademarks register you will find listed identical official marks held both by the Society and by the Province of Nova Scotia.
It would be easy to go on and on about the problems of official marks and about the problematic exercise of rights in such marks – there are many examples that can be drawn upon. (Do you remember a not too distant news story about a young Nova Scotia musician pursued by the Mint because his album cover featured Canadian pennies (which are official marks of the Mint)? Do you remember Canadian pennies?) But the point here is to discuss the new bill introduced to reform the official marks regime. I should state from the outset that I was consulted on the drafting of this Bill (along with my colleague Andrea Slane). The goal of the exercise was to reform the official marks regime. I note that a good argument could still be made for its wholesale abolition.
The main goal of the proposed reforms is to address some of the regimes key deficiencies. First, the scope of official marks is limited – both in terms of who can get them, and for what purposes. “Public authority” is defined – even more narrowly than in the definition adopted by the Federal Court of Appeal to limit access to official marks. The objective is to limit official marks only to those public authorities with the strongest links to government. Official marks are also available only to public authorities for their names, emblems or logos, or in relation to their programs or services. Access to official marks by universities is limited only to Canadian universities (under the current law, universities in any country of the world can (and do) obtain official marks.)
A second feature of the bill is that it provides for a process by which objection can be made to the public notice given by the Registrar of the official mark. This is meant to be a more expeditious and cheaper procedure than seeking judicial review of a mark. It also introduces other grounds for objection to the official mark, including that it might have a serious adverse effect on the owner of an existing trademark, that it is a generic term, or that it is otherwise not in the public interest.
A third feature sets a term of 10 years of protection for official marks. This protection can be renewed by the public authority – but if it is not, then the mark is no longer protected.
The bill aims to do something that has long needed to be done – it seeks to curtail access to official marks, to place some limits on the marks themselves so as to lessen their impact on other trademark holders, and to provide a mechanism whereby official mark deadwood can be removed. These are certainly important objectives. It is to be hoped that the bill will at least serve to put an option on the table for public debate, with a view to achieving much-needed reform in this area.
Thursday, 05 June 2014 12:17
The British Columbia Supreme Court has certified a class action law suit against Facebook for breach of privacy rights protected under B.C.’s Privacy Act. In doing so, it dismissed Facebook’s application to have the court decline jurisdiction to hear the case.
The claim in Douez v. Facebook, Inc. relates to Facebook’s Sponsored Stories “product”. Sponsored Stories permits paid advertisers to use the names and likenesses of users of Facebook, alongside information about their product and service and their trademarks. The resulting “Sponsored Stories” are then sent to the contacts of the person featured in the ‘story’. The court found that between September 9, 2012 and March 10, 2013, 1.8 million B.C. residents were featured in Sponsored Stories. Individual Facebook users are given no notice of the fact that they are featured in a Sponsored Story. The class Plaintiff Douez argued that the use of the names and images of herself and other Facebook users from B.C. violated s. 3(2) of the Privacy Act, which provides:
3. (2) It is a tort, actionable without proof of damage, for a person to use the name or portrait of another for the purpose of advertising or promoting the sale of, or other trading in, property or services, unless that other, or a person entitled to consent on his or her behalf, consents to the use for that purpose.
Justice Griffin found that the plaintiff had shown strong cause for the court not to enforce the forum selection clause. She noted that the B.C. Privacy Act gave exclusive jurisdiction over claims arising under that Act to the B.C. Supreme Court. As a result, a California court could not have jurisdiction over such a claim. She took note as well of the “cultural differences in the ways various jurisdictions think of a right to privacy”, suggesting that a court in California might not interpret the right of privacy in the Privacy Act in a manner consistent with Canadian approaches to privacy. She concluded that “the availability of a statute-based claim in the court’s own jurisdiction, which confers exclusive jurisdiction on that court, can on its own be a basis for overriding a forum selection clause, but also can support two other “strong causes” for not enforcing a forum selection clause, namely, juridical advantage and public policy.” (at para 93). According to Justice Griffin, a court in California would have no jurisdiction over a Privacy Act claim, such that enforcing the forum selection clause would rob the plaintiff of her recourse. Further, she found that the protection of privacy was a matter of important public policy. She also noted that “with the creation and growth of the internet the potential implications for a loss of privacy are greater than ever. The difficulty in proving quantifiable damage remains great for an individual whose privacy is lost, but the social harm can be monumental if the loss of privacy includes publicity over the internet with its almost infinite reach and timelessness.” (at para 104). In addition to these reasons for not enforcing the forum selection clause, Justice Griffin found that it would cause much less hardship overall for Facebook to defend itself in B.C. than for the plaintiff and her witnesses to travel to California to plead their case.
Justice Griffin also certified the class proceeding. The relevant class is:
All British Columbia Resident natural persons who are or have been Members of Facebook at any time in the period from January 1, 2011, to May 30, 2014 and:
(a) who at any time during this period registered with Facebook using either their real name or a portrait that contained an identifiable self-image or both;
(b) whose name, portrait, or both have been used by Facebook in a Sponsored Story; and,
(c) who do not seek to prove individual loss as a result.
Note that a similar class action law suit in the United States related to Facebook’s Sponsored Stories resulted in a $20 million settlement agreement in 2013.
Thursday, 29 May 2014 07:54
Canada’s federal Conservative government has nominated Daniel Therrien as the next Privacy Commissioner of Canada. If this appointment is approved by resolution of the Senate and House of Commons, he will take over the position that was held until recently by two-term Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.
Mr Therrien is lawyer and a career civil servant who has held many different posts. He currently holds the position of assistant deputy attorney general for public safety, defence and immigration. Mr. Therrien is not widely known in the privacy law field. In its information provided at the time of his nomination, the government notes that he “co-led the negotiating team responsible for the adoption of privacy principles governing the sharing of information between Canada and the U.S. under the Beyond the Border Accord.”
The NDP has already indicated that it will not support the nomination. The CBC reports that the NDP has expressed concerns that Mr Therrien has worked to closely on developing policies or legislation which he would have to oversee as Privacy Commissioner.
Since Jennifer Stoddart’s departure in December 2013, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has been led by Chantal Bernier, who had previously served as Assistant Privacy Commissioner.
Jennifer Stoddart, who was highly regarded both nationally and internationally, was a strong leader, an innovative thinker and a strong voice for privacy. She leaves very big shoes to fill.
Friday, 25 April 2014 07:52
On April 24, 2014 the Supreme Court of Canada handed down a decision which at least touches upon the thorny question of what constitutes “personal information”. This question is particularly important to governments that are contemplating the proactive release of government data under commitments to open government. The issue is far from academic, as federal, provincial and municipal governments in Canada have all taken steps in this direction. Indeed, the Ontario government has just signaled its own commitment to open government, which will include proactive disclosure of government data.
Most public sector data protection laws in Canada define “personal information” as essentially information about an identifiable individual. This means that “personal information” is more than just information that actually identifies an individual (their name or social insurance number, for example) but also includes any other information that, if linked with other available information, could lead to the identification of a specific individual. Thus, a government contemplating the proactive disclosure of data sets under an open data program, would have to ensure that the data sets were free not just of individuals’ names and identification numbers, but also free of data that could be linked back to specific individuals. This can be more challenging than one might think, particularly as we live in an environment where more and more data is becoming easily available from both public and private sector sources, and where search engines, algorithms and computing power make mining and matching information increasingly fast, inexpensive and easy.
The case – Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services v. Information and Privacy Commissioner (Ontario) – involved an access to information request made by a journalist to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. The journalist sought the disclosure of the number of registered sex offenders in Ontario who lived within each postal code forward sortation area (the area designated by the first three digits of a postal code). The journalist did not seek access to this information by full postal code, presumably because this finer level of detail might lead to the identification of those individuals, particularly where there were relatively few residences associated with a particular postal code. While Ontario maintains a sex offender registry, the locations of the registered sex offenders are not public information. The register is intended primarily for use by law enforcement officials. The journalist planned to create a map which would allow the public to see a more generalized geographic representation of where registered sex offenders in Ontario were living. The Ministry refused to disclose this information on the basis that it could lead to the identification of specific individuals. It argued not just that the information could not be disclosed because it fell within the definition of “personal information” but also because its release would interfere with law enforcement, endanger the life or physical safety of the individuals, and might hamper the control of crime (by making sex offenders less likely to comply with the registration requirements out of fear of identification). All of these bases are exceptions to disclosure of information under the provinces Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA). The Ministry’s refusal was appealed by the journalist to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which ordered that the information be disclosed. The Commissioner’s decision was upheld by the courts all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada, which also upheld the order to release the information sought by the journalist.
The Supreme Court considered three issues: the level of deference due to the decision of the Information Commissioner, whether access was ordered for purposes inconsistent either with FIPPA or with the law governing the sex offender registry, and whether the Commissioner’s interpretation of the scope of the law enforcement exceptions to information disclosure was appropriate. Yet underlying these issues was a key question which itself was not in dispute before the Court. This was whether the information sought constituted personal information – in other words, information about an identifiable individual. The approach of the Commissioner to this question was not part of the appeal, yet once it was accepted that the information sought was not personal information, it would be difficult to find that any of the harm-based exceptions to disclosure would apply – no matter what interpretation they were given – because information that could not lead to the identification of specific individuals would be highly unlikely to cause them harm and, in theory at least, less likely to deter them from complying with the registry requirements.
In refusing to disclose the information, the Ministry had argued that the information being sought was personal information because it could be linked with other available information in order to re-identify individuals. This issue of the potential for re-identification is central to the question of whether information qualifies as a personal information, and in the context of open data, it will be crucial in decisions about whether certain data sets may be proactively disclosed. It is important to note that the Commissioner in this case observed that the Ministry had not advanced any cogent evidence of the potential for re-identification. This point was picked up by the courts below, and the Supreme Court of Canada agreed. Writing for the Court, Justice Cromwell noted that “the Commissioner determined that the Ministry did not provide any specific evidence explaining how the Record could be cross-referenced with other information in order to identify sex offenders. We find this to be a reasonable determination.” (at para 60) Indeed, very little specific evidence was provided, and the court dismissed more general literature on re-identification as “unconvincing and generic scholarly research on ‘identifiability’.” (at para 60) The Court also agreed with the Commissioner’s rejection of the Ministry’s assertions that more information might someday be available on the Internet that could, if matched with the sex offender data, lead to identification. Justice Cromwell stated: “it must be stressed that the Ministry only referred vaguely to the unpredictability of internet developments and did not provide any specifics about how identification could occur.” (at para 61).
The case involved a dispute over the release of data in the context of a specific access to information request. Yet there are lessons here for those tasked with identifying data sets for proactive release for the purposes of open data. These might be summarized as follows: