There will be whooping and cheers on Parliament Hill on Sunday, when Canada’s privacy commissioner issues an unqualified report that accuses Facebook of privacy violations that are so endemic and frequent that they should be prosecuted under the country’s privacy law. That fine – and one or more convictions — could top $1 million.
That’s big news in Canada. An angry Citizen newspaper in Montreal reported last fall that Facebook was requiring drivers to provide their government-issued identification to log in to its app. Later, it was revealed that the company was making changes to its data practices that would allow it to harvest and share data from the apps of users and their friends.
My colleague, Bianca Bosker, wrote recently about the plight of users whose privacy was violated. Two Canadians had told her that they’d had the same status updates circulated about them by the Observer, a U.S. news website that republished them in its sister publication, The New York Observer. This, after Facebook’s censors had blocked their profiles, thus rendering them unable to comment on stories published by those media.
If a Canadian Facebook user saw something like this happen, what do you do? Speak up? Contact your Prime Minister? Perhaps in these times, Facebook needs to be more responsive to complaints. The company’s rules should be enforceable in Canada. And the young people of our small and medium-sized towns who now form the biggest, if unwitting, customer base for Facebook should be aware of what the company can, and cannot, do.
The struggle over Facebook’s data practices has laid bare some of the small-town small fry of large tech companies like Amazon and Google that have hollowed out our culture and to which the likes of Toronto’s young people now aspire, taking jobs in areas that are not urban.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission recently fined Twitter for failing to inform its investors and analysts about growing concerns about users’ ability to engage with the platform in meaningful ways. Uber has weathered regulatory criticism for its pay practices and the allegations that it was dumping its riders in favor of driverless cars. Google, the search engine.
Big tech has dominated the communications and media landscapes for the past decade. There are few signs of waning enthusiasm.
If the United States is using abusive practices in its market, as Facebook has done with user privacy, what does Canada do about it?
The Privacy Commissioner’s office is located in the federal Parliament’s Centre Block, near Library and Archives Canada, an agency that Canada appropriated from the United States in 2014.
The signs are there. The office works with Canada’s information commissioner to protect personal information that Canadians submit to public authorities. It conducts information-protection reviews that lead to the enforcement of policy-related laws, and if it determines that laws have been broken, it issues warnings to those that need them. In 2015, it stopped Salesforce and Oracle from using data in their products without adequate safeguards. It also supports the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s efforts to amend “standards for market conduct” rules that were used by Google and Facebook to transfer user data around the world.
So why wasn’t this report received by Parliament and the public months ago? Were the powers that be concerned that it might reveal Facebook’s deep ties to the multibillion-dollar Internet conglomerate, the government, and other large organizations that dominate big tech?
Whatever the reasons, the response has been sluggish. The Canadian government recently awarded just a single day to the Canadian Privacy Commissioner’s office to release its report.
Is there a way to push the Canadian government to act? Reporters Without Borders ranks Canada 63rd out of 180 countries in press freedom, while the Reporters Without Borders Central and Eastern Europe List ranks it 32nd out of 23 countries.
At the very least, journalists and people with other protectable information have the right to speak up if their privacy and security are being violated by large tech companies that play an instrumental role in shaping the news.
More than ever, I find myself wishing Canada, as the largest country in the world without a data privacy law, had an opportunity to rein in our biggest global companies.
Facebook should be held to a higher standard. It’s time to get serious about enforcing our privacy rules.