Thursday, April 28, 2016

You'd better forget the right to be forgotten in Canada

Summary: This discussion paper is intended to address the following question put forward in the OPC’s consultation paper on online reputation: “Can the right to be forgotten find application in the Canadian context and, if so, how?” The author is of the view that the right to be forgotten cannot be shoehorned into existing privacy law because search engines do not come within the scope of PIPEDA and the activity of indexing newsworthy content online is subject to the journalism exception in PIPEDA. Furthermore, any attempt to compel a search engine to not include particular results -- particularly pointing to lawful content -- would fall afoul of the freedom of expression right under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The paper concludes with some additional thoughts that will need to be factored into the discussion of the right to be forgotten in Canada.
The next battle over privacy and freedom of expression in Canada will -- not surprisingly -- be carried out over the internet. Or at least it will be about the internet. Following the important decision by the European Court of Justice in Google Spain SL, Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, Mario Costeja González (2014), which found a “right to be forgotten” in the European Data Protection Directive, it is natural to ask if there is an equivalent or similar right to be forgotten in Canada.

In my submission, there is not. It cannot be shoehorned into our existing federal privacy law, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, and any attempt to do so would ultimately be unconstitutional on at least two grounds.

But there is also the more general, philosophical discussion worth having about whether one can import “RTBF” into Canada, a country that values freedom of expression and purports to embrace the internet. How can it make any sense at all to have a law that says a person or a news outlet can lawfully post material on the internet, but it is illegal for a search engine to tell you that it even exists?    

While I am sympathetic to many who may want to leave unpleasant or embarrassing facts behind them as they progress through their lives, it is wrong in principle to allow information to remain on the internet but to only prohibit a completely uninvolved party from indexing and including it in search results.

If the problem is with the embarrassing or out-of-date information, then any efforts should be directed at the person responsible for the information. However, the legal reality is that it would be constitutionally untenable to pass a law that would prohibit a news outlet or other content producer from expressing him or herself

Are search engines and the results they produce subject to PIPEDA?

The first question to be asked is whether one can locate a right to be forgotten within the existing framework of PIPEDA. I suggest you cannot, for a range of reasons.

Are search engines engaged in “commercial activities”?

To begin with, search engines are likely not engaged in commercial activities, at least for the purposes of section 4(1)(a) of PIPEDA. In order for PIPEDA to apply to any activity, the collection, use and disclosure of personal information must be in the course of “commercial activities.” One cannot simply say that a search engine is a private commercial undertaking because the definition is not as broad as it seems. As found by the Federal Court in  State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company v. Privacy Commissioner of Canada, 2010 FC 736, the actual activity at issue is what needs to be characterised for the purposes of s. 4(1)(a):
[106]      I conclude that, on a proper construction of PIPEDA, if the primary activity or conduct at hand, in this case the collection of evidence on a plaintiff by an individual defendant in order to mount a defence to a civil tort action, is not a commercial activity contemplated by PIPEDA, then that activity or conduct remains exempt from PIPEDA even if third parties are retained by an individual to carry out that activity or conduct on his or her behalf. The primary characterization of the activity or conduct in issue is thus the dominant factor in assessing the commercial character of that activity or conduct under PIPEDA, not the incidental relationship between the one who seeks to carry out the activity or conduct and third parties... [emphasis added]
While most search engines are commercial enterprises and supported by advertising revenue, it does not charge users for search results and it does not charge content providers to be indexed in the search engine for inclusion in search results. The indexing, retrieval and serving of search results are not part of any commercial transaction. Ultimately, the search engine is about facilitating timely and easy access to information on the world wide web, which is not an inherently commercial activity. It can most readily be likened to compiling a card-catalogue for a library, but it is electronic and the library is the global internet.

Are search engines handling personal information for “journalistic, artistic or literary purposes”?

Instead of being included in PIPEDA by s. 4(1)(a), I would suggest that most search engines are excluded due to the operation of s. 4(2)(c) of PIPEDA:
(2)         This Part does not apply to ...
(c)         any organization in respect of personal information that the organization collects, uses or discloses for journalistic, artistic or literary purposes and does not collect, use or disclose for any other purpose.
Search engines are fundamentally journalistic or literary operations, particularly when providing a user with access to news media content. At the same time, they are also providing news media producers with access to readers.

The Torstar case was abundantly  clear that writing on matters of public interest is not reserved to the mass media. On this particular question, the Chief Justice’s judgement in Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61 (“Torstar”), at paragraphs 96 and 97, is interesting:

However, the traditional media are rapidly being complemented by new ways of communicating on matters of public interest, many of them online, which do not involve journalists.  These new disseminators of news and information should, absent good reasons for exclusion, be subject to the same laws as established media outlets.  I agree with Lord Hoffmann that the new defence is “available to anyone who publishes material of public interest in any medium”: Jameel, at para. 54. …
[97]        A review of recent defamation case law suggests that many actions now concern blog postings and other online media which are potentially both more ephemeral and more ubiquitous than traditional print media. While established journalistic standards provide a useful guide by which to evaluate the conduct of journalists and non-journalists alike, the applicable standards will necessarily evolve to keep pace with the norms of new communications media. [emphasis added]
While Torstar was a defamation case, it is instructive of how traditional categories of “journalism” are being expanded in the modern age, particularly by our courts. This expansion was specifically in reference to the operation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is discussed in greater detail below.

The journalism exception to privacy laws has been applied by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta in Order P2005-004, which focused on the actions of the Calgary Herald Newspaper. In that case, the Adjudicator appointed under the Personal Information Protection Act (Alberta) (“PIPA”) determined that any interpretation of that Act must follow the Charter and the Alberta Bill of Rights. The complainant alleged that the Calgary Herald had violated PIPA in its publication of a news story. The Calgary Herald argued that sections 4(3)(c) and 4(3)(k) of PIPA meant that PIPA would not apply to these activities. The adjudicator stated:

[para 19] Webster’s New College Dictionary defines “journalistic” as “Of, relating to, or typical of journalists.” “Journalism” is defined as:

1.Collection, writing, editing and dissemination of news through the  media 2. Material written for publication in the media 3. A style of  writing used in newspapers and magazines, characterized by the direct  presentation of facts or occurrences with little attempt at analysis or  interpretation.

[para 20] The personal information disclosed was in the form of a newspaper article which was published by the Organization. This in itself meets the definition of “material written for publication in the media”. Having reviewed the newspaper article itself, the personal information within it is a direct presentation of the facts and is clearly collected and disclosed for journalistic purposes. There is no evidence before me or any evidence from the newspaper article itself that would lead me to conclude that the collection, use and disclosure of the personal information was for any other purpose other than for journalistic purposes.

Having found that s. 4(3)(c) of PIPA applied, the adjudicator determined that that the OIPC had no jurisdiction to consider the matter further:

[para 22] However, my authority under the Act is to determine whether the collection, use or disclosure of personal information was for journalistic purposes only. Once I have established that the use of personal information was for journalistic purposes only, the Act does not apply and my authority to decide any other issue ceases. Any inquiry into what is a reasonable collection, use and disclosure of personal information, can only come into play if I have jurisdiction to proceed under the Act. In this case, I have determined that the Act does not apply to the matter in question and I can go no further.
At their core, search engines perform a journalistic function: it primarily relates to the dissemination of news and information, and is comprised of material written for publication in the media. On that basis, s. 4(2)(c) of excludes the operation of PIPEDA. The fact that this particular paragraph in PIPEDA refers to “journalistic, artistic or literary purposes and does not collect, use or disclose for any other purpose” remains vulnerable to Charter challenge, as was the case in the UFCW case discussed below.

We should remember that Costeja arose in the context of a newspaper article appearing in a search result. If a similar case were to arise in Canada, it would be clear that the search engine, in pointing to a newspaper article, is performing a journalistic function.

However, even if one were to conclude that PIPEDA may facially apply to a search engine’s indexing and serving of content to users, any interpretation of the statute along those lines is unconstitutional both on a separation of powers analysis and under s. 2(b) of the Charter.

Freedom of Expression under the Charter

Any reading of PIPEDA that has the effect of regulating the indexing of public content -- particularly newsworthy content -- and providing links to users via a search engine effectively regulates the expressive activity of the search engine operator and would be very problematic under the Charter. As I intend to argue, doing so would offend s. 2(b) of the Charter and cannot be justified under s. 1.

Given that legislation should be read in a manner that is consistent with the Charter, regulators should interpret PIPEDA in a manner that excludes search engines. As the Chief Justice wrote in R. v. Sharpe, 2001 SCC 2, at paragraph 33:

Supplementing this approach is the presumption that Parliament intended to enact legislation in conformity with the Charter. If a legislative provision can be read both in a way that is constitutional and in a way that is not, the former reading should be adopted. [citations omitted]

It is important to consider whose rights are actually engaged in the RTBF discussion. Clearly we are looking at the rights of a search engine operator to communicate meaning from its indexing of websites. But we also have to be mindful that RTBF affects the rights of the organization that created the linked-to content. They have the right to communicate their content to the public and to use search engines to reach their audiences. Finally, the rights of internet users are also engaged as section 2(b) also includes the right to receive expressive content.[1] It is clear that the freedom of expression under the Charter limits the government’s ability to regulate the content of communications, but also the mode and timing of such communication.

Here we are not only concerned with a search engine operator’s constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression, but the right of every Canadian to get access to relevant content on the internet via the use of Google’s search engine. This also limits Canadian media outlets’ constitutionally protected right to disseminate its expressive content on the internet.

Any law or the operation of any law that restricts the mode or content of expression violates s. 2(b) of the Charter and must be justified under s. 1 of the Charter. Once a search engine has shown that any legislative provision limits its rights to expression, the onus will be on the government to justify it.

In R. v. Sharpe, the Supreme Court laid out the framework of analysis that a tribunal must follow at paragraph 78:

The question we must answer is whether that limitation is reasonable and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.  To justify the intrusion on free expression, the government must demonstrate, through evidence supplemented by common sense and inferential reasoning, that the law meets the test set out in R. v. Oakes, [1986] 1 S.C.R. 103, and refined in Dagenais v. Canadian Broadcasting Corp., [1994] 3 S.C.R. 835, and Thomson Newspapers Co. v. Canada (Attorney General), [1998] 1 S.C.R. 877.  The goal must be pressing and substantial, and the law enacted to achieve that goal must be proportionate in the sense of furthering the goal, being carefully tailored to avoid excessive impairment of the right, and productive of benefits that outweigh the detriment to freedom of expression.

Thus, in order to be justifiable under the Charter, all of the following questions must be answered in the affirmative for this particular application of PIPEDA to be upheld under Section 1 of the Charter:

(a)        Is the limitation prescribed by law?
(b)        Is the legislative objective pressing and substantial?
(c)        Is there proportionality between the limitation on the right and the benefits of the law? This requires answering the following questions:
(i)        Is there a rational connection between the legislative objective and the means in the law meant to achieve that objective?
(ii)        Is the right in issue “minimally impaired”?
(iii)        Is there proportionality between the deleterious and salutary effects of the law? 
There is certainly an argument to be made that RTFB fails on all counts, but the Charter question will likely hinge on the proportionality analysis.

Assuming the limitation would be “prescribed by law”, we have to determine the objective of the legislators and then consider whether it is “pressing and substantial”.

The purpose of the statute is set out in s. 3:

3.         The purpose of this Part is to establish, in an era in which technology increasingly facilitates the circulation and exchange of information, rules to govern the collection, use and disclosure of personal information in a manner that recognizes the right of privacy of individuals with respect to their personal information and the need of organizations to collect, use or disclose personal information for purposes that a reasonable person would consider appropriate in the circumstances.

As noted by the Federal Court in State Farm:

[104]        These purposes are reflected in the long title of PIPEDA [emphasis added]:An Act to support and promote electronic commerce by protecting personal information that is collected, used or disclosed in certain circumstances, by providing for the use of electronic means to communicate or record information or transactions and by amending the Canada Evidence Act, the Statutory Instruments Act and the Statute Revision Act.

[105]        The collection of information in order to properly defend a civil tort action has little or nothing to do with these purposes.

In the State Farm case, the Court determined that “[t]he collection of information in order to properly defend a civil tort action has little or nothing to do with these purposes.”

The Supreme Court’s characterization of the Personal Information Protection Act (Alberta) in Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) v. United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 401, 2013 SCC 62, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 733 (“UFCW”) is also helpful, as that law is substantially similar to PIPEDA:

[19]         There is no dispute that PIPA has a pressing and substantial objective. The purpose of PIPA is explicitly set out in s. 3, as previously noted, which states:
3          The purpose of this Act is to govern the collection, use and disclosure of personal information by organizations in a manner that recognizes both the right of an individual to have his or her personal information protected and the need of organizations to collect, use or disclose personal information for purposes that are reasonable.

The focus is on providing an individual with some measure of control over his or her personal information: Gratton, at pp. 6 ff.   The ability of individuals to control their personal information is intimately connected to their individual autonomy, dignity and privacy.  

The purpose of PIPEDA is to protect the privacy of individuals, in a manner that is tempered against the needs of organizations to collect, use or disclose personal information for legitimate purposes, particularly focused on supporting and promoting electronic commerce.

One might even connect PIPEDA’s purposes to the protection of reputation, which has been repeatedly held by the Supreme Court of Canada to be an important value. However, one should note that civil and criminal defamation law has repeatedly been held to be consistent with the Charter because the falsity of the information is a key component. (See Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto, [1995] 2 SCR 1130, 1995 CanLII 59 and R. v. Lucas, [1998] 1 SCR 439, 1998 CanLII 815.) Falsity of the information is not integral to the right to be forgotten. Information that is true can still be caught within the European model of RTBF.

There likely is a rational connection between protecting the privacy of individuals and regulating the collection, use and disclosure of their personal information in the course of commercial activity, per (c)(i) above. However, this is not minimally impairing and thus fails the proportionality analysis.

From RJR-MacDonald Inc. v. Canada (Attorney General), [1995] 3 SCR 199 at para. 160), it is clear that only very focused and restricted impairments of the right to free expression can survive Charter challenge:

As the second step in the proportionality analysis, the government must show that the measures at issue impair the right of free expression as little as reasonably possible in order to achieve the legislative objective.  The impairment must be “minimal”, that is, the law must be carefully tailored so that rights are impaired no more than necessary.  The tailoring process seldom admits of perfection and the courts must accord some leeway to the legislator.  If the law falls within a range of reasonable alternatives, the courts will not find it overbroad merely because they can conceive of an alternative which might better tailor objective to infringement . . . On the other hand, if the government fails to explain why a significantly less intrusive and equally effective measure was not chosen, the law may fail.
PIPEDA, if interpreted in a way that would regulate the inclusion of any particular search result, would simply not be minimally impairing. Prohibiting someone from connecting Canadians to information lawfully existing on the internet goes dramatically beyond the legitimate purposes of PIPEDA, particularly where the information is news reporting.

If PIPEDA is applied to search results, the law does not include any mechanisms by which the constitutional right to freedom of expression may be balanced with the interests protected by the legislation. One cannot save legislation by the belief that it will be applied constitutionally. And I cannot imagine a situation where a private corporation can be expected to carry out the difficult task of balancing rights that would be required for any such scheme to survive constitutional muster. This aspect is completely without precedent in Canadian law.

The Supreme Court has long recognized the fundamental importance of freedom of expression, including expression by corporations. PIPEDA, interpreted in this manner, would outlaw the collection, use, or disclosure of personal information for many legitimate, expressive purposes related to seeking information and knowledge. This infringement of the right to freedom of expression is disproportionate to the government’s objective of providing individuals with control over the personal information, particularly information that has been deemed to be newsworthy.

A proposed interpretation of PIPEDA that would include the search engine would also fail on the final proportionality branch. In this branch of the s. 1 analysis, the tribunal has to determine whether there is proportionality between the infringement of the rights of Canadians and the salutary effect of such limitation. As set out by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Sharpe:

102        This brings us to the third and final branch of the proportionality inquiry: whether the benefits the law may achieve in preventing harm to children outweigh the detrimental effects of the law on the right of free expression. The final proportionality assessment takes all the elements identified and measured under the heads of Parliament’s objective, rational connection and minimal impairment, and balances them to determine whether the state has proven on a balance of probabilities that its restriction on a fundamental Charter right is demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society.  

One must consider whether the benefit actually achieved in the form of protecting privacy in the context of e-commerce outweighs the affront to the right to provide access to relevant information and to get access to relevant, lawful information. Preventing a search engine from providing access to this search result does little, if anything, to advance this interest.

At this portion of the analysis, one must also consider what expression is being squelched and how close it is to the “core of Charter values”. It is clear that certain kinds of expression are distant from the core of Charter values and can more readily be limited. Providing access to relevant, lawful information is at the core of Charter values:  “individual self-fulfilment, finding the truth through the open exchange of ideas, and the political discourse fundamental to democracy” (R. v. Sharpe, quoting Irwin Toy). Regulating search results would limit expression that cuts to the core of Charter values (and does little to advance the objectives of the legislation).

A court or tribunal is not only focused on the actual speech in question, but also considers what other speech can be “caught in the net” of the impugned legislation. One can readily imagine that a politician seeking election could attempt to have unflattering material removed, even if entirely truthful. If PIPEDA applies and one has to rely on knowledge and consent, the operator of the search engine may have no choice but to remove it as any consent to include it in the index has been revoked.

I also note that such a finding would legally compel a search engine operator to provide incorrect information to its users, which is a disproportionate effect on freedom of expression. When a user enters a query into a search engine, they expect to receive the most relevant results using the search engine’s usual algorithms. Omitting a highly relevant, responsive search result would mislead that user into believing that certain content does not exist, though it continues to exist and remains accessible on the media outlet’s site. This is akin to a student asking a research librarian for everything the library has about a specific individual, but legally requiring the librarian to lie to the patron. The book would remain on the shelf, but the librarian is prohibited from mentioning it.

Similar to the finding of the Supreme Court of Canada in UFCW striking down Alberta’s privacy law, limiting legitimate expression that relates to the core of Charter values of seeking lawful information is “too high a price to pay”:

[20]        PIPA’s objective is increasingly significant in the modern context, where new technologies give organizations an almost unlimited capacity to collect personal information, analyze it, use it and communicate it to others for their own purposes. There is also no serious question that PIPA is rationally connected to this important objective. As the Union acknowledges, PIPA directly addresses the objective by imposing broad restrictions on the collection, use and disclosure of personal information. However, in our view, these broad restrictions are not justified because they are disproportionate to the benefits the legislation seeks to promote.  In other words, “the Charter infringement is too high a price to pay for the benefit of the law”: Peter W. Hogg, Constitutional Law of Canada (5th ed. Supp.), vol. 2, at p. 38-43.

A failure to satisfy any of the questions in the Oakes analysis results in the legislation being found to be unconstitutional. I fully expect that the Federal Court would find applying PIPEDA to create a “right to be forgotten” in this manner to be unconstitutional. I expect this analysis would yield the same result for a standalone right to be forgotten law.

Separation of powers - Constitution Act, 1867 

Under the Canadian constitution, the provincial governments are given exclusive jurisdiction over matters of property and civil rights in each province. Privacy is a matter of civil rights, as is non-criminal law that would mandate the removal of content such as that referred to by the complainant. The federal government bases PIPEDA on the “General Trade and Commerce Power” that is located within s. 91(2) of the Constitution Act, 1867. In order to be valid federal legislation rooted in the general branch of the trade and commerce clause, the law would have to follow the indicia set out in General Motors of Canada Ltd. v. City National Leasing, [1989] 1 SCR 641, 1989 CanLII 133 (S.C.C.) (“General Motors”).  In upholding the Combines Investigation Act as valid federal law under the general branch of s. 91(2), the Chief Justice Dickson at paras. 32 and 34, enumerated five indicia or factors of the valid exercise of the general Trade and Commerce power:
  1. The impugned legislation must be part of a general regulatory scheme.
  2. The scheme must be monitored by the continuing oversight of a regulatory agency.
  3. The legislation must be concerned with trade as a whole rather than a particular industry or commodity
  4. The legislation must be of such a nature that the provinces, together or independently, would be constitutionally incapable of enacting it.
  5. The failure to include one or more provinces or localities in a legislative scheme would jeopardize the successful operation of the scheme in other parts of the country.
PIPEDA itself rests on a tenuous foundation, as it does not regulate the economy or trade as a whole, but one singular commodity: personal information. Nevertheless, the application of a “right to be forgotten” would rest on an even more shaky foundation as it would be regulating only one activity: the operation of internet search engines.

Final issues

Who is the decision maker?

Even if one were to create a right to be forgotten in Canadian federal law, transplanting the European model of operation into Canada would be grossly problematic. In Europe, the burden is entirely on the search engines to receive applications for removal, to evaluate them and to act upon them. This places the search engine in the position of having to decide, using its own frame of reference, whether the information is out of date, inaccurate or obsolete. The search engine does not know the complainant, does not know the context, does not know if the individual is a public figure and does not know whether the individual has genuinely “moved on with his life”. There may be some scenarios that are relatively easy to deal with, such as revenge porn, but for most cases the search engine will only have the complainant’s submissions to rely upon.

Content providers’ rights

Any process needs to also appreciate that the content provider’s interests are also at stake. Content providers choose to make their materials available online and also choose whether to allow it to be indexed by search engines. Meddling with how such content appears in search engine listings interferes with the ability of content providers to reach their intended audiences. Doing so without their input is very problematic: At the very least, content providers will need to be consulted to provide input on whether the content is “newsworthy”. However, placing the search engines as the arbiters of the content provider’s rights is not fair to the content provider.

Reviving forgotten information

A final consideration would have to be how can one revive forgotten information that becomes relevant again. The last election saw a number of political candidates whose social media activity and other online content came back to haunt them. Most notably, an old video surfaced online of an individual who was working as a plumber who was recorded urinating into a customer’s coffee cup. When it surfaced, the plumber was running as a candidate for Parliament. One can readily imagine scenarios in which someone with political ambitions will seek to have content suppressed before seeking a nomination. If successful, relevant information about the candidate’s history and character many be indelibly lost.  


While aspects of the right to be forgotten can be compelling, particularly for privacy advocates like myself, it is a concept that cannot find a Charter-resistant foothold either within PIPEDA or some other means in Canadian law.
David TS Fraser is lawyer with McInnes Cooper, where his practice is exclusively devoted to internet and privacy law. David is also a part-time faculty member at Dalhousie Law School and an associate of the Institute of Law and Technology. The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to the firm or any of its clients.

17        Freedom of expression protects not only the individual who speaks the message, but also the recipient. Members of the public —  as viewers, listeners and readers —  have a right to information on public governance, absent which they cannot cast an informed vote; see Edmonton Journal, supra, at pp. 1339-40.  Thus the Charter protects listeners as well as speakers; see Ford v. Quebec (Attorney General), 1988 CanLII 19 (SCC), [1988] 2 S.C.R. 712, at pp. 766-67.
18        This is not a Canadian idiosyncrasy.  The right to receive information is enshrined in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217 A (III), U.N. Doc. A/810, at 71 (1948), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Can. T.S. 1976 No. 47.  Canada is a signatory to both.  American listeners enjoy the same right; see Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications Commission, 395 U.S. 367 (1969), at p. 390; Martin v. City of Struthers, 319 U.S. 141 (1943), at p. 143. The words of Marshall J., dissenting, in Kleindienst v. Mandel, 408 U.S. 753 (1972), at p. 775, ring as true in this country as they do in our neighbour to the south: [T]he right to speak and hear —  including the right to inform others and to be informed about public issues —  are inextricably part of [the First Amendment]. The freedom to speak and the freedom to hear are inseparable; they are two sides of the same coin. But the coin itself is the process of thought and discussion. The activity of speakers becoming listeners and listeners becoming speakers in the vital interchange of thought is the means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth. [Citations omitted.]

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