Friday, July 16, 2010

The Privacy Policy Paradox - Census and Copyright Contrasted


There is a certain paradoxical irony in the coincidence of the debate over abolishing the mandatory long form census form and Bill C-32 on copyright revision in Canada.

The current census proposal reflects a commendable desire, in principle, to cut back on the “nanny state” notion of society, with a “less is more” approach to the role of Government. Interestingly, many groups are resisting this initiative in this instance, calling for the keeping of the long form because the minor inconvenience and the minimal privacy implications are, in their view, worth the benefit of the important information that will be collected.

Moreover, according to Jennifer Stoddart, the Federal Privacy Commissioner, only three complaints have been filed in the last decade about the long form census.

Likewise, most Canadians favour strict regulation of banks and the environment, because the costs and interference with “property” are well worth the benefits. Even Alan Greenspan now believes in regulation.

Segue to Bill C-32, which ironically is clearly an example of major Government intervention and regulation. The air tight “digital locks” provisions that will sooner rather than later override all users’ rights have received enormous criticism and even backlash. Not only will these provisions enable the micro-management, if not absolute control, over what consumers can do with their expensive Blue Ray discs, software and other bought-and-paid-for property consisting of content media and hardware (from smart phones to cameras to computers) in terms of where, when and how they can be used. These provisions will enable the elimination of users’ fair dealing rights in DRMed and TPMed material, if the content owner so decrees, and even access to material in the public domain.

Moreover, there is an enormous potential for invasion of privacy - since DRM and TPM can be programmed to “phone home” or to report to third parties on users’ reading, research, listening, viewing, photo, video, webcam, browsing and who knows what other activities to whoever is interested and willing to pay for such information. The proposed privacy protection measures in Bill C-32 (s. 41.14) are simply not adequate to safeguard the legitimate privacy concerns of Canadians.

Bill C-32 would not only enable third party corporations to collect such personal information. It would make it illegal to circumvent such technology if the user is notified in presumably small print in a click through contract of adhesions that this is being done and a means is provided - which may be far from easy or practical - to opt out of the data collection. Just think about how tricky is it is to protect your privacy on Facebook - and nobody is forcing anyone to have a page on Facebook.

Canadians should be able to assume that their default status is that their privacy is being strongly protected. They should not have to take active, complex and quite likely ineffective steps to constantly ensure that this is the case in ordinary and often inevitably necessary daily and activity.

If the Government believes that questions to Canadians about “the number of bedrooms in their homes and what time they leave for work” are too privacy invasive, and are not the business of disinterested professional civil service statisticians, why would the Government enable collection of the most intimate personal information for commercial and who knows what other purposes about what consumers are doing with their computers, smart phones, TV sets, and other electronic devices and content and what information these consumers are obtaining?

The digital lock measures in Bill C-32 are an extreme example of government intervention not only in the market place and the R&D labs and educational institutions of this country but in the innermost realms of Canadian privacy. Apart from certain paid lobbyists and trade associations largely serving the American entertainment industry, and organizations controlled or created by them, there is little if any support for these digital lock measures.

A Canadian compromise style solution would be to allow for protection of anticircumvention measures consistent with but not beyond what is required by the 1996 WIPO treaties - and to also allow protection from such measures when they interfere with users’ fair dealing and any other rights provided by copyright, privacy and generally applicable law. There is nothing in international law to prevent such an approach.

The digital locks provisions of Bill C-32 are clearly the most controversial issue in this reform package - which is otherwise potentially promising. Without a compromise, Bill C-32 will almost certainly be doomed and all of the many supporters of constructive copyright reform will definitely be disappointed.



  1. Very well argued. This is the most concise account I have yet read of ways in which copyright and privacy are short-circuited by TPMs.

  2. Wow. I hadn't even thought of the privacy implications. Thank you for this.

  3. the rationale behind "privacy" for the census and privacy under DRM is different.

    with the census, it's merely a smokescreen to hide their true intention to reduce the ability of government to make decisions based on reason and facts, making their media based truthiness echo chamber all the more effective. they will claim that they oppose the government collecting intrusive private information because "government is bad" and cannot be trusted with the information.

    with DRM they don't care as it is corporations collecting the data, and anything that helps business (or their cronies) must be good (as is reducing government/taxes).