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ETHI Committee Report

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In late March 2018, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (the committee) began a study of the breach of personal information involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. The scandal quickly brought to light much broader questions relating to the self-regulation of platform monopolies, the use of these platforms for data harvesting purposes, and their role in the spreading of disinformation and misinformation around the world.

In June 2018, the committee published an interim report, noting its concern that the Canadian democratic and electoral process is vulnerable to improper acquisition and manipulation of personal data. It made eight preliminary recommendations with respect to the powers of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, the application of privacy legislation to political activities, requirements regarding transparency in political advertisements, data sovereignty, and the need to better align federal privacy legislation with the European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The committee pursued its study this fall. It heard evidence on a variety of topics, including the structural problems inherent to social media platforms, the interaction between privacy law and competition law in the context of data monopolies, cybersecurity, and digital literacy.

After hearing additional evidence, the committee remains of the view that the Government of Canada must act urgently to better protect the privacy of Canadians. To that end, in addition to the preliminary recommendations put forward in June 2018, the committee is of the view that the Government of Canada should:

  • subject political parties and political third parties to the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA);
  • provide additional resources to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to ensure efficient exercise of its additional powers;
  • ensure that no foreign funding has an impact on elections in Canada;
  • ensure transparency in online political advertisements;
  • impose certain obligations on social media platforms regarding the labelling of content produced algorithmically, the labelling of paid advertisement online, the removal of inauthentic and fraudulent accounts, and the removal of manifestly illegal contents such as hate speech;
  • provide to an existing or a new regulatory body the mandate to proactively audit algorithms;
  • include principles of data portability and interoperability in PIPEDA;
  • study the potential economic harms caused by data-opolies and determine whether the Competition Act should be modernized;
  • study how cyber threats affect democratic institutions and the electoral system;
  • conduct research regarding the impacts of online disinformation and misinformation as well as the cognitive impacts of digital products which create user dependence; and
  • invest in digital literacy initiatives.

As stated in its preliminary report, the committee is hopeful that this work will contribute to a lasting solution for a global challenge.