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Privacy commissioner slams Bill C-11, languishing on the order paper

July 23, 2021

Federal regulator calls it “a step back overall” for privacy

The federal Privacy Commissioner, who oversees the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act and who would be the lead regulator if Bill C-11 ever becomes law has slammed the bill as a “step back overall” for privacy. In a lengthy submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, the Commissioner says the bill does not get the balance between privacy and commercial interests right and is out of step with legislation in other jurisdictions. The main concerns are summarized in a press release issued at the same time by the Commissioner:

Control

Instead of giving consumers greater control over the collection, use and disclosure of their personal information, Bill C-11 offers less control. It omits the requirement under existing law that individuals understand the consequences of what they are consenting to for it to be considered meaningful, and it allows the purposes for which organizations seek consent to be expressed in vague, if not obscure, language.

New flexibility without increased accountability

In the digital economy, organizations need some degree of flexibility to use personal information, sometimes without consent, in order to maximize the potential of the digital revolution for socio-economic development. But with greater flexibility for companies should come greater accountability.

Unfortunately, Bill C-11 weakens existing accountability provisions in the law by defining accountability in a manner akin to self-regulation.

Organizations should be required to apply the principles of Privacy by Design and undertake privacy impact assessments for new higher risk activities. The law should also subject organizations to proactive audits by the OPC to ensure they are acting responsibly.

Responsible innovation

Bill C-11 seeks to provide greater flexibility to organizations through new exceptions to consent. However, certain exceptions are too broad or ill-defined to promote responsible innovation. The preferred approach would be to adopt an exception to consent based on legitimate business interests, within a rights-based approach.

A rights-based foundation

Bill C-11 prioritizes commercial interests over the privacy rights of individuals. While it is possible to protect privacy while giving businesses greater flexibility to innovate responsibly, when there is a conflict, privacy rights should prevail.

To that end, the Bill should be amended to adopt a rights-based framework that would entrench privacy as a human right and as an essential element for the exercise of other fundamental rights. The OPC submission recommends doing this in a way that would strengthen the constitutional foundation of the law as properly within the jurisdiction of Parliament.

Access to quick and effective remedies

Bill C-11 gives the OPC order-making power and the ability to recommend very high monetary penalties. However, both are subject to severe limitations and conditions, including the addition of an administrative appeal between the OPC and the courts that would deny consumers quick and effective remedies.

Only a narrow list of violations could lead to the imposition of administrative penalties. The list does not include obligations related to the form or validity of consent or the numerous exceptions to consent. It also does not include violations of the accountability provisions.

In the case of failure to comply with these obligations, only criminal sanctions would apply and only after a process that could take approximately seven years. A process that would take a maximum of two years is recommended.

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