Theory in Why Canada Still Doesn’t Have Real Privacy Laws: Data Mining is too Profitable

Canada still doesn’t have any real privacy laws. Why is that? One theory is that data mining is too profitable.

Clear back in 2020, the Canadian government had finally introduced privacy reform after considerable delay. The move represented a long overdue legislative step to better protect Canadian’s personal information in the digital age. After all, any time a company violated Canada’s privacy laws, this was met with a strongly worded letter before the issue gets dropped – at least as far as the federal government is concerned. If consumers wanted to hold companies accountable, they would have to privately fund a lawsuit against the company – sometimes a class action.

In an age where other developed nations, including the increasingly backwards nation of the US, have mechanisms to fine companies for egregious violations of people’s privacy and personal information, Canada has increasingly stood out as an outlier where the government seems to care so little about its citizens on this particular topic. This made the prospect that something might finally be done about this sore spot in Canada’s digital policy more than welcome.

What’s more is just how non-controversial privacy reform is. Politically speaking, commentators of all political stripes generally support the idea. So, passing such a bill isn’t exactly going to need much of a Hail Mary throw. Really, the political theory about all of this quite sound.

Yet, when this seemingly once in a life time bill came forward, some in the world of privacy chimed in with a certain degree of discontent. The legislation wasn’t, by any means perfect. Still, it marked a massive step forward of finally bringing Canada’s law in line with the rest of the developed world to a degree. Recognizing how rare an opportunity to put in place some kind of fix to Canada’s privacy law problems, we took the position that a partial fix is better than no fix at all. It wasn’t a common position, but one we felt was the best one to take under the circumstances.

It turns out that this was an extremely wise position to take.

Some commentators continued to treat this like just another bill that will just pop back up on the docket should an election get called. So, rather than support a partial fix, the emphasis was on getting the current iteration perfectly right the first time. It’s not unreasonable to want better, but this implies that such legislative efforts aren’t scarce. In this case, privacy reform really was a scarce thing to see in the Canadian political landscape.

After the election was called, Canada’s privacy reform died on the orderpaper along with Bill C-10, the terrible Social Media Censorship bill that is currently still haunting digital rights advocates to this day.

Back in December, Innovation Minister, François-Philippe Champagne told privacy advocates that privacy reform was one of his “top priorities“. What followed was radio silence since then, indicating that paying lip service to a bill that wasn’t even promised by the party during the previous election meant that the Ministers job was done on the file. While it sounds cynical, this observation proved correct since there hasn’t been any movement on the file since.

More recently, digital rights organization, Open Media, put together a petition for Canadians to sign demanding privacy reform. It put Canadians in the absurd position of begging the federal government to do what is right and politically non-controversial. Generally speaking, the bill is already written. While tweaks would be welcome, it isn’t that hard to re-introduce the bill as-is as a show of good faith. After all, a carbon copy of the legislation might be a sign of laziness, but at least it shows that you, as a Minister, are actually committed to the initiative.

Yet, here we are today still without a privacy reform bill. There is no question it is needed, but political will is so lacking, the Minister can’t even be bothered to re-introduce the bill, let alone work to make it right. Why is it that Canadians are having to beg the government to get off their lazy bums and do something that is so obviously needed and welcome? Answers to that might be short in the political realm, but there may be clues in the business realm.

Recently, journalists from multiple media outlets did an investigation into education tech. It was an investigation into multiple platforms operating in 49 countries. As it turns out, the data mining if children is proving to be a hugely profitable venture. While the main investigation is locked away behind a paywall (naturally), there is a Twitter thread that offers some hints on the findings:

Part way through, CBC Kids was described as particularly egregious:

The way this information was collected is quite complicated.

And the level of data extraction varies. CBC Kids, for example, is described as particularly “egregious.”

To break it down, The Globe and Mail created a handy visual graphic.

One of the details is that CBC Kids used 29 trackers to send personal information to 20 different advertising companies. Further, the platform also uses 15 data tracking cookies which is then sent to an additional 9 advertising technology companies.

For context, the CBC is federally funded. They are not exactly a broke entity in need of cash just to stay afloat. By comparison, Freezenet only uses Google Analytics and Google Adsense – and we are always starved for cash. We only use these services simply because it is as bare bones as we can make the site while at the same time, being able to adequately plan for further expansion to the site and help pay for server costs (the latter of which we still struggle to make due to lack of third party financial backing). Yet, CBC somehow feels that they are justified in doing this.

Of course, this investigation is probably pointing to a much broader problem in the privacy debate. Data mining is a long standing problem on numerous digital platforms and websites. The less you view your users as human beings and more of a profit making tools, the fewer issues you have of just selling your users personal information to as many third party data brokers and advertising companies as possible.

Obviously, privacy reform stands to actually break this habit. Such a law could theoretically require news organizations and platforms to actually treat people’s personal information with respect. What’s more is that companies that wish to do business in Canada with their tracking technology could theoretically be asked to adhere to certain standards of protecting people’s personal information. The business risk here is that money could stand to dry up. Few things motivate companies more than something getting in the way of their revenue.

Given how much MPs were so heavily lobbied to get link tax legislation tabled, it’s not exactly a logical leap that those and similar companies would also be highly motivated to sweep privacy reform under the rug. After all, there is a lot of money involved in data mining.

None of this was lost on University Law Professor, Michael Geist:

CBC Kids cited as one of the world’s most egregious cases for grabbing data from kids and making it available to advertisers. CBC says it follows the law. That’s the problem: the law is weak and Canadian government couldn’t be less interested in fixing it.

The defence that companies are already “following the law” is probably the least surprising aspect in all of this.

At any rate, there is every reason to believe that companies are already engaging in data mining and taking advantage of the lack of real privacy laws in Canada. While it may not be the only reason out there why the Canadian government could care less about people’s personal information, it does go a long way in explaining why the government is so careless in the first place.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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