Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Did the Canadian Federal Court take the first step to a "right to be forgotten" with a global take-down order?

This past week, the Federal Court of Canada released a very interesting decision in A.T. v. Globe24h.com, 2017 FC 114, which seems to be the first step towards a Canadian "right to be forgotten". (You may recall that I generally don't think such a right exists in Canada (You'd better forget the right to be forgotten in Canada). The decision includes an order that purports to tell a non-Canadian what information can be published on the internet globally.

The decision is generally unsatisfying in a number of ways. But first here's the background: The Applicant, identified only as A.T., registered a complaint with the Privacy Commissioner of Canada that a Romanian website was hosting and making available an Alberta Labour Board decision that he did not want to be associated with. An internet search of his name would turn up this decision, hosted by Globe24h. He wanted it taken down. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) had previously investigated a number of complaints against the outfit and issued a finding. Essentially, the OPC had found that the site scraped decisions from Canadian legal, courts and tribunal websites and made them searchable on the internet. Most of these tribunals and courts made these records available online, but restricted them from being indexed and fully searchable. The business model of the site seems to be that they will promptly take down decisions -- presumably those not favourable to individuals -- if the individual paid a processing fee. The OPC had found this was a violation of Canada's Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

In the case before the Federal Court, only the complainant and the OPC appeared. As a result, the record is one-sided and there was not a complete, adversarial analysis of all the issues to be considered. Our legal system is premised upon having opposing sides present their best arguments and best evidence before a Court. This decision only includes one side and no interveners who may have helped the court get a more balanced view. It does appear that the Court generally accepted the arguments put forward by the OPC, including hearsay related to the dialogue that OPC had with Globe24h (but which it declined to have with the Court).

The Court relied on, among other authorities, the Equustek v. Google decision from the British Columbia Court of Appeal, which was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada and for which a decision is pending, to support its ability to issue a mandatory order against an entity with no presence in Canada. This decision may be reversed.

Secondly, because there was nobody to present the other side, there was no discussion about the impact of freedom of expression or the right to information on the case. The Court concluded that because the original case was available online, but not indexed, removing it from Globe24h would not have any real impact. And because the site's purpose was concluded to be mostly mercenary, it could not take advantage of the exclusion given to exclusively journalistic reports. In fact, the Court determined that the website's approach was not "appropriate" for the purposes of s. 5(3) of PIPEDA, which reads:

Appropriate purposes

(3) An organization may collect, use or disclose personal information only for purposes that a reasonable person would consider are appropriate in the circumstances.

Here's the judge's reasoning on that point:

[75] I agree with the OPCC that a reasonable person would not consider the respondent to have a bona fide business interest. In making this argument, the Commissioner relies on the Canadian Judicial Council’s (CJC) Model Policy for Access to Court Records in Canada (Model Policy) and the OPCC’s own guidance document to federal administrative tribunals. The CJC Model Policy discourages decisions that are published online to be indexed by search engines as this would prevent information from being available when the purpose of the search is not to find court records. The policy recognizes that a balance must be struck between the open courts principle and increasing online access to court records where the privacy and security of participants in judicial proceedings will be at issue.

[76] The CJC has struck a balance by advising courts to prevent judgments from being discovered unintentionally through search engines. To this end, the CJC has recommended that judgments published online should not be indexed by search engines. The OPCC notes that CanLII and other court and tribunal websites generally follow the CJC’s Model Policy and prevent their decisions from being indexed by search engines through web robot exclusion protocols and other means. Indeed, the Federal Court has taken such measures to prevent our decisions from being indexed. That does not bar anyone from visiting the Federal Court website and conducting a name search. But it does prevent the cases from being listed in a casual web search. The respondent’s actions result in needless exposure of sensitive personal information of participants in the justice system via search engines.

The Court agreed with the OPC's submissions that the "journalism" exception doesn't apply in the case either. In doing so, the Court followed the reasoning of the Alberta Court of Appeal in United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 401 v Alberta (Attorney General), 2012 ABCA 130, which was affirmed on other grounds by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2013 SCC 62.

[67] The respondent has claimed in communications with the OPCC that his purposes in operating Globe24h.com should be considered exclusively journalistic. Should the Court accept that claim, Part 1 of PIPEDA does not apply to his activities because the personal information collected, used or disclosed falls under the exception provided by paragraph 4(2)(c) of PIPEDA.

[68] The “journalistic” purpose exception is not defined in PIPEDA and it has not received substantive treatment in the jurisprudence. The OPCC submits that the Canadian Association of Journalists has suggested that an activity should qualify as journalism only where its purpose is to (1) inform the community on issues the community values, (2) it involves an element of original production, and (3) it involves a “self-conscious discipline calculated to provide an accurate and fair description of facts, opinion and debate at play within a situation ”. Those criteria appear to be a reasonable framework for defining the exception. None of them would apply to what the respondent has done.

[69] The Alberta Court of Appeal interpreted similar statutory language in Alberta’s Personal Information Protection Act, SA 2003, c P-6.5: United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 401 v Alberta (Attorney General), 2012 ABCA 130 (CanLII), [2012] AJ No 427, aff’d 2013 SCC 62 (CanLII), [2013] 3 SCR 733 [United Food]. Specifically, in considering the adjective “journalistic”, the Court of Appeal noted that “it is unreasonable to think that the Legislature intended it to be so wide as to encompass everything within the phrase “freedom of opinion and expression””: United Food, above, at para 56. Further, the Court noted that “[n]ot every piece of information posted on the Internet qualifies [as journalism]”: United Food, above, at para 59.

[70] In my view, the respondent’s claimed purpose “to make law accessible for free on the Internet” on Globe24h.com cannot be considered “journalistic”. In this instance, there is no need to republish the decisions to make them accessible as they are already available on Canadian websites for free. The respondent adds no value to the publication by way of commentary, additional information or analysis. He exploits the content by demanding payment for its removal.

[71] The evidence indicates that the respondent’s primary purpose is to incentivize individuals to pay to have their personal information removed from the website. A secondary purpose, until very recently, was to generate advertising revenue by driving traffic to his website through the increased exposure of personal information in search engines. There is no evidence that the respondent’s intention is to inform the public on matters of public interest.

[72] Even if the respondent’s activities could be considered journalistic in part, the exemption under paragraph 4(2)(c) only applies where the information is collected, used or disclosed exclusively for journalistic purposes. It is clear from the record that Globe24h.com’s purposes extend beyond journalism.

While this case is very interesting and the first in Canada to approach a "right to be forgotten", I would caution against assuming that it is a strong precedent for Canadian law. Unfortunately, it appears all the argument and evidence was one-sided. The case raises some very interesting, very important and nuanced issues. We really would have benefited from a full presentation of all arguable positions, particularly those related to freedom of expression and the appropriateness of global takedown orders.

Here's the final order from the Court:


1. It is declared that the Respondent, Sebastian Radulescu, contravened the Personal Information Protection and Electronics Documents Act, SC 2000, c 5 by collecting, using and disclosing on his website, www.Globe24h.com (“Globe24h.com”), personal information contained in Canadian court and tribunal decisions for inappropriate purposes and without the consent of the individuals concerned;

2. The Respondent, Sebastian Radulescu, shall remove all Canadian court and tribunal decisions containing personal information from Globe24h.com and take the necessary steps to remove these decisions from search engines caches;

3. The Respondent, Sebastian Radulescu, shall refrain from further copying and republishing Canadian court and tribunal decisions containing personal information in a manner that contravenes the Personal Information and Electronic Documents Act, SC 2000, c 5;

a) The Respondent, Sebastian Radulescu, shall pay the Applicant damages in the amount of $5000;

b) The Applicant is awarded costs in the amount of $300; and

c) The style of cause is amended to substitute the initials “A.T.” for the name of the applicant.

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