Major updates to laws are needed as social media business models continue to rely on personalized data, industry experts said at a panel held Jan. 26.
The conversation was held virtually and hosted by Jim Turk, the director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University. Experts discussed how current algorithms are driven by monetizing the accumulation, retention and mobilization of personalized data, and how current laws have either been retracted or have not kept up with the times.
More than two decades ago, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) was published to protect ordinary citizens’ personal information. While the experts agree this act is outdated, it is currently the primary federal private sector data protection law for the foreseeable future.
There has been an attempt to update personal privacy law with the introduction of Bill C-11, also known as the Digital Charter Implementation Act.
It died before it could be fully debated and voted upon, when the federal election was called last year. But it had also come under criticism, including from federal privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien.
“The bill would give consumers less control and organizations more flexibility in monetizing personal data, without increasing their accountability,” said Therrien. He said last May that Bill C-11 was “a step back overall” for privacy.
Andrew Clement, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto in the faculty of information and a panellist at Wednesday’s event, asked Tamir Israel, a staff lawyer for the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy law clinic whether Bill C-11 would have been a worthwhile update to PIPEDA.
“PIPEDA was developed in the early days of the information revolution and what we are dealing with now is a multibillion-dollar industry with really powerful incentives and capabilities that individuals are hard-pressed to navigate. We need a modern regulatory regime with tools that are up for the task,” said Israel.
According to a Government of Canada summary, Bill C-11 would have allowed individuals to request that organizations dispose of personal information and permit individuals to withdraw consent for the use of their information.
“There are a lot of aspects of the law that should be improved upon, but a great place to start is it’s overall framing and approach to privacy,” said Israel. “The framework of Bill C-11 is to support and promote electronic commerce by protecting privacy and developing trust. This should be rephrased with a human rights approach as privacy should be given the pre-eminent protection when individuals interact.
“I find it remarkable that there’s been no update to the framework of the law, especially looking at the growth of ad-tech business models, that many platforms have adopted, where the extraction of personal information is used in a variety of covert ways to feed us content and ads,” said Israel.
According to Clement, a positive to come out of the discussion around Bill C-11 is the algorithmic transparency obligation. Today, algorithmic tools are increasingly used to make decisions about people. Businesses will need to be transparent about how they use systems to make predictions, recommendations and decisions about individuals.
Ryerson University student Victoria Sousa said she constantly purchases products she discovers on the social media app, TikTok.
“The positives from targeted ads is that it makes shopping more effortless and convenient. However, this can lead to other negative impacts. Due to the invasiveness, I do worry about my own privacy, and I find it difficult to resist ads. I love shopping, sometimes I’ll even add something to my cart, forget about it until I later get reminded of the item scrolling through TikTok hours later after receiving a pop-up ad for the same item,” said Sousa.
Israel said he believes that Canada should incorporate proposals that ban algorithmic tools because companies use these tools to surveil their customers and this is problematic.
Second-year English major, Sousa said, “The invasive manner in which ads surface constantly on one’s phone or computer will definitely affect how people spend their money. As everything becomes more accessible, these companies are making more money than ever before. Before the age of TikTok, ads were shown to us on TV but they were unspecific and general depending on the channel they appeared on, but now that everything is being monitored, people are discovering things they didn’t even know they wanted.”