In a world where the giants of Silicon Valley insist on watching us, we need to make sure we’re watching them right back.
If 2018 has been defined by any one major theme in technology stories, the erosion of privacy in a digital age is a strong candidate. We’ve watched executives from Facebook and Google face down government panels, defending their rationale for sharing your personal information with other parties. We’ve heard report after report of fresh data breaches, unleashing our personal information into the dark web. We’ve seen investigations showing that technology firms are still plotting schemes with your personal information more so than they ever let on.
And now as the year ends, we’re at risk of losing one of the best advocate voices that Canada has seen working to defend against what former BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Balsillie described as “surveillance capitalism.”
Last week, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) issued a call for help. “PIAC itself has never been more threatened. We face an acute funding crunch and will be unable to keep going without your urgent help,” it states.
The Ottawa-based charity is asking for donations to stay afloat. It doesn’t usually call for personal donations, but the usual funding mechanism of having Canada’s large telecommunications firms pay the bill isn’t working. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is supposed to compel them to do so, but it’s taking too long, Lawford says in a phone interview.
“The CRTC has just ground to an utter halt in issuing these things for no obvious reason,” he says.
Lawford doesn’t blame the carriers for not paying – if the CRTC doesn’t order them to do so, there’s just no reason to. “The problem is still ours,” he says. “We’re in a position where if something doesn’t come through, we’re completely destitute.”
Most Canadian consumers will know PIAC for what it’s done to fight the telecommunications firms for better deals on wireless subscriptions. But it’s also worked for years to hold large corporations accountable when it comes to following Canada’s privacy laws. Perhaps most importantly, it’s worked to protect children’s privacy as even that demographic becomes a target for corporate data mining.
In an email to IT World Canada, PIAC executive director John Lawford says that big moments in protecting privacy rights from business forces date back to 2001 and 2002. PIAC had filed a range of complaints to the Privacy Commissioner during this period that resulted in privacy improvements at the Bank of Nova Scotia, Bell Canada, and the Hudson’s Bay Company.
PIAC has taken on tech giants such as Google and Facebook. In 2010, it was involved with an investigation into Google’s inadvertent collection data from Wi-Fi networks via its Street View cars. In June, it wrote an open letter to Facebook asking it to not launch “Messenger Kids” in Canada because of concerns around collecting and retaining children’s communications.
There’s a long list of small personal freedoms we enjoy as Canadians thanks to the work of PIAC. Thanks in part to its work, we have a Wireless Code that applies to all carriers and the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-Television services, which offers an ombudsman that can resolve disputes with carriers. In many ways, its become an integral part of the regulatory process.
The scope of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s office requires that it receive a complaint before conducting an investigation, so advocate bodies like PIAC that have the proper legal talent are integral to making the system work. Without the presence of such groups, it would be up to private individuals to put aside the time and resources required to launch a complaint that’s truly effective and makes an impact.
If PIAC goes away, it’s likely all of us will be paying more for telecommunications services in the near future, Lawford says.
“We’re the default public lawyers at the CRTC,” he says. “If we’re not around, then I don’t think there’s another group that could do what we do as well.”
I for one will be happy to make a donation to keep this important public advocate afloat and hope they find a solution for sustainable funding in the near future. Please consider doing the same.