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Newsletter – May 1999 Vol.6, No.1

IN THIS ISSUE

Action Alert: Personal Information Privacy in Peril!
CRTC Holds New Media Hearing
PIAC Working with Industry to Develop Code of Practice for E-Commerce
Benefits of Long Distance Competition in Question

Action Alert: Personal Information Privacy in Peril!

You are undoubtedly aware of the increasing loss of control that we are all experiencing in respect of our personal information. Commercial entities are collecting, trading and using our detailed personal information, without our knowledge or consent. It’s time to reclaim the right to control over our personal information.

Bill C-54, The Personal Information Protection Act, is now before the House of Commons, and once passed, will be sent to the Senate Committee on Trade and Commerce for review. It is imperative that our legislators hear from the public on the need for legislated privacy protection – you can bet that they will be hearing the other side of the story from industry lobbies. Please tell your MP, and the Senate Committee, how important it is that they pass effective data protection legislation for Canadians without delay. A sample letter with addresses can be found at the PIAC website: http://www.piac.ca

The following is an excerpt from a letter recently sent to all MPs and Senators by nation-wide coalition of groups campaigning to save Bill C-54. Together with PIAC, these groups include the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, Canada’s Coalition for Public Information, the Canadian Health Coalition, the Consumers’ Association of Canada, Electronic Frontier Canada, Democracy Watch, the National Privacy Coalition, and the University of Ottawa Human Rights Research and Education Centre.

“Legislation governing private sector collection and use of personal information is long overdue. The technology for data collection and distribution, and market pressure to exploit that technology, have developed far more rapidly than legal protections against unauthorized use of our personal information. It’s time to bring our laws into line with our technological capabilities and market realities.

Computer technologies now make it possible to compile, store, match and trade personal data at minimal cost. Although it is the desire and expectation of Canadians that their personal data will be used only with their knowledge and consent, this is generally not reflected in business practice. Private companies are routinely collecting, using, and disclosing personal information for their own benefit, without regard to the individual’s right to privacy.

Evidence of this growing trade in personal information abounds, as Canadians are increasingly bombarded with unsolicited, often highly targeted marketing via phone, fax, mail, and now, e-mail. We are finding our confidential information published in print directories and available on-line to anyone with elementary computer hacking skills. Employees are being surreptitiously monitored. Many people are denied services on the basis of inaccurate information about them held by private companies. Most of the unauthorized data collection and trading goes on behind our backs, but the evidence of it is everywhere. It’s time to act.

Control over one’s personal information is a fundamental element of the broader right to privacy. Privacy is a fundamental element of free speech and democracy. Without privacy, individuals are stripped of their autonomy, dignity, and self-determination. It is critical that we establish now a comprehensive legal framework for privacy protection in this country. Bill C-54 is a key element of that broader framework.

Many of us would like to see stronger and more specific data protection rules than those set out in Bill C-54. However, we recognize that political and constitutional realities require compromise, and it is on this basis that we are urging you to see that the Bill is passed without any additional exceptions for certain business sectors or investigative agencies.

We are particularly concerned about proposed new clause 7(3)(c.1). This amendment would place an organization in the untenable position of having to choose between safeguarding the privacy of its clients/employees (which is the thrust of Bill C-54) and being a good corporate citizen by cooperating with law enforcement agencies. Police do not need this leeway – they can always access personal information through the use of warrant procedures.

Given the hidden nature of most privacy invasions, it is essential that the Privacy Commissioner be empowered to conduct random audits of private organizations. If anything, para.18(1) of the Bill should be strengthened by permitting spot checks. It certainly should not be weakened.

We are also very concerned about the suggestion from some quarters that Bill C-54 creates too onerous a regime for personal health records. Indeed, health records need stronger protections than those in Bill C-54. Until we have those stronger protections, health records should not be excluded from Bill C-54.

The urgency of the need for private sector data protection laws for consumers and employees cannot be overstated. Quebec is the only Canadian jurisdiction to have enacted such legislation – other Canadians deserve similar protections.

It is no coincidence that Bill C-54 has received wide-ranging support from responsible industry associations, independent experts, consumer advocates, and civil liberties groups. Effective data protection laws will level the playing field for responsible businesses vis-a-vis their non-compliant counterparts, will improve consumer confidence in electronic commerce, and will enhance trade opportunities with Europe. It is in everyone’s long term interest that reasonable ground rules for the management of personal data are set out now. Those rules must be based on the fundamental right of individuals to exercise control over their personal information.”

For more information on Bill C-54, see the PIAC website at http://www.piac.ca. You can access the Bill at the Parliamentary website http://www.parl.gc.ca, under “Parliamentary Business”, and then “Government Bills”.

CRTC Holds New Media Hearing

During the Fall of 1998 and into the early part of this year, the CRTC held a public proceeding on New Media. The CRTC held the proceeding to consider: 1) how new media may affect the regulation of traditional broadcasting undertakings; 2) the degree to which new media may be broadcasting or telecommunications activities, and, if they do, how they should be treated with respect to the objectives of the respective Acts; and, 3) to identify broader policy issues to the federal government. PIAC and the Action Réseau Consommateur of Montreal jointly intervened in this proceeding (PIAC/ARC). PIAC/ARC argued that new media should not develop in a wholly unregulated environment. Decision making by companies about new product development and availability will be informed by their own interests. Broader economic, social and cultural goals, as in the past, will require some degree of government policy or regulation to ensure their realization with new media products and services. Many intervenors argued that new services, such as the Internet, should or could not be regulated. PIAC/ARC argued that while this may be the case in the near term, there may be occasion in the future for some selective regulatory interventions, such as dealing with the issues of market power and concentration of ownership. PIAC/ARC also argued the need for policy clarification by the federal government about whether the Internet and some aspects of content, such as public information and services, are to be considered essential services, like basic telephone, or optional services. Such clarification is becoming increasingly important if the intent of government is that Canadians’ will need to be able to access and use up-to-date communications, such as the Internet, in order to be full participants in an information-based society. PIAC/ARC argued that as part of this policy vacuum, issues relating to the means and cost universal access from the home, and the creation of a diversity of commercial and non-commercial content to meet economic, social and cultural needs must be addressed. Specific recommendations by PIAC/ARC included:

– the CRTC should conduct periodic reviews (3 years) to determine which services and content are essential;

– the government of Canada should clarify its policy position on whether the Internet and some forms of new media are essential services;

– telecommunications service providers should be required to make contributions of up to 5% of gross annual revenues to create a fund. In priority, the purposes of the fund would include: facilitating technical access to basic telecommunications services in high cost areas and individual affordability; to sustain not-for-profit community-based Internet access services; to develop not-for-profit Canadian local, regional and national content; and to augment other Canadian content new media funds.

It is expected that the CRTC will issue a report on the New Media proceeding in June of this year.

PIAC Working with Industry to Develop Code of Practice for E-Commerce

Over the past several months, PIAC has been actively working with industry representatives, through a multi-stakeholder group chaired by the Office of Consumer Affairs, Industry Canada, to develop guidelines for the conduct of on-line commerce. We are close to finalizing a set of consumer protection principles that will include:

  • Provision of full, accurate and timely information by on-line vendors, in respect of their products and services, as well as their location and identity;
  • Consumer control over contract formation (via a triple-click confirmation process, for example);
  • Consumer control over the collection, use and disclosure of their personal information (including control of spam, or unsolicited commercial e-mail);
  • Security of electronic transactions and electronically stored data;
  • Protection against consumer liability for unauthorized transactions;
  • Consumer access to inexpensive, accessible, effective dispute resolution mechanisms; and
  • Improving consumer awareness of the risks in electronic commerce and of ways in which to minimize those risks.

Given the global nature of electronic commerce, the effectiveness of domestic regulation is limited. That is why we are working with the Canadian government as well as consumer groups in Canada and other countries to develop international standards for consumer protection. Efforts are currently underway within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to develop a set of principles for consumer protection in electronic commerce, similar to those in Canada, for use by all OECD member countries. International cooperation in this area is essential in order that global commerce benefits consumers as well as businesses.

Benefits of Long Distance Competition in Question

When it comes to savings on long distance, residential consumers have been the poor cousins of big business users, according to a new study by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC).

Big business long distance rates have plummeted between 1992 and 1996. In contrast, the study shows that many residential consumers, as much as half the population in some regions of the country, were still paying the same high rates in 1996 as they were in 1992. Less than a quarter of Canadians have reaped the full price benefits of competition by subscribing to an alternative service provider. When basic local service is taken into account, the situation is even worse, since most Canadians’ phone bills have actually gone up since long distance competition started.

PIAC’s study suggests that the recent price war may not make long distance savings available to many more residential consumers. In a market in transition from monopoly to competition, consumers have trouble benefitting from the discounts offered. The study points to low levels of consumer knowledge, aggravated by complexity and lack of comparability of long distance pricing, as key factors in consumer inertia. PIAC is calling upon the CRTC, and the Ministers of Industry and Heritage to take measures to ensure that residential consumer benefit more over the next five years of long distance competition than they did over the last five years. Public information programs, and better tracking of market indicators, are among the measures that PIAC is advocating. Copies of the report in English (100 pages) are available at $20 each.

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