Improvements needed to protect online reputation, Privacy Commissioner says
January 26, 2018
New report sets out recourses such as the right to ask search engines to de-index web pages and takedown of online information; emphasizes the need for education
Canadians need better tools to help them to protect their online reputation, says a new report by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.
The report highlights measures such as the right to ask search engines to de-index web pages that contain inaccurate, incomplete or outdated information; removal or amendment of information at the source; and education to help develop responsible, informed online citizens.
"There is little more precious than our reputation. But protecting reputation is increasingly difficult in the digital age, where so much about us is systematically indexed, accessed and shared with just a few keystrokes. Online information about us can easily be distorted or taken out of context and it is often extremely difficult to remove," says Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien.
"Canadians have told us they are concerned about these growing risks to their reputation. We want to provide people with greater control to protect themselves from these reputational risks. Ultimately, the objective is to create an environment where people can use the Internet to explore and develop without fear their digital traces will lead to unfair treatment. "
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada's draft Position on Online Reputation aims to highlight existing protections in Canada's federal private sector privacy law, identify potential legislative changes and propose other solutions for consideration.
The report follows a consultation process aimed at identifying new and innovative ways to protect reputational privacy, a key OPC priority. A discussion paper and call for essays resulted in 28 submissions from stakeholders which helped inform this report.
With respect to existing protections, the report notes that the federal private sector privacy law provides for a right to de-indexing – which removes links from search results without deleting the content itself – under certain circumstances and upon request.
Canadians should also be permitted to easily delete information they've posted about themselves on a commercial forum, for instance a social media site. In cases where others have posted information about an individual, they have a right to challenge and seek amendment to demonstrably illegal, inaccurate, incomplete and out of date information, the report says.
All of these considerations need to be balanced with other important values such as freedom of expression and public interest.
For their part, search engines and websites have an obligation to assess requests from individuals for information to be de-indexed or taken down and are generally equipped to do so through existing customer complaints channels. If a matter cannot be resolved, individuals have a right to complain to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.
"While it's important to take action on de-indexing, we are also recommending that Parliament undertake a study of this issue. Elected officials should confirm the right balance between privacy and freedom of expression in our democratic society," says Commissioner Therrien.
There are a number of circumstances which could potentially be the subjects of de-indexing or takedown requests. For example, an adult may feel their reputation is harmed by controversial views they held as a teenager and posted online. Other examples could include defamatory content in a blog; photos of a minor that later cause reputational harm; intimate photos; or online information about someone's religion, mental health or other highly sensitive information.
While the combination of the ability to request de-indexing and source takedown of information shares similarities with the Right to Erasure (Right to be Forgotten) in Europe, the report does not seek to import a European framework into Canada. Rather, it is an interpretation of current Canadian law, and the remedies related to online reputation that can be found within the existing law.
The report also emphasizes the importance of privacy education.
Along with its provincial and territorial counterparts, the OPC has sent a joint letter to the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education calling for privacy protection to be incorporated into curriculum for digital education across the country.
"We want young Canadians to develop into good online citizens," Commissioner Therrien says. "Youth need the technical knowledge to protect themselves, along with a strong understanding of how to act responsibly online and why it's important."
The report is also calling on Parliament to establish a stronger ability for youth to request and obtain the deletion of information they themselves have posted on social media, and in appropriate cases, information posted about them online by their parents or guardians when they reach the age of majority.
Other proposed solutions focus on educating all Canadians about available mechanisms to control reputation, such as through website privacy settings, and other emerging privacy enhancing technologies. The OPC has also committed to proactively addressing systemic or sector-wide problems related to online reputation, for instance, where vulnerable groups are concerned, and to encouraging research, development and adoption of new solutions for protecting online information, in part through its Contributions Program.
After consulting with stakeholders on the proposals outlined in its draft position paper, the OPC will finalize its position and develop an action plan to put the new measures into practice.
Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada