Saturday, June 23, 2012

Ethics committee talks social media without Del Mastro

I had a few committee meetings to choose from while I was in Ottawa last week, and attending the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics meeting on Tuesday made sense. And not just because it was hearing witnesses on a study of the privacy issues around social media.

I was hoping to see Conservative ethics committee member Dean Del Mastro, who has been keeping a low profile and allowing Pierre Poilievre to speak for him. Alas, Dean was a no-show. Disapointing to those hoping for a show, but perhaps a blessing for those looking for some substantive debate on what is a rather important topic as well. And we did get that; there was none of the partisan sniping that we hear of when committee hearings actually do get coverage. Instead, everyone was asking reasonable questions designed to get useful answers, not just score points or push a message. At one point, Liberal Scott Andrews even followed-up on a line of questioning when Conservative Blaine Calkins ran out of time.

There were three witnesses invited to testify: Sara Grimes, an assistant professor in the faculty of information at the University of Toronto; Tamir Israel, a staff lawyer with the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa; and Adam Kardash, a managing director and head of access privacy with law firm Heenan Blakie. While Kardash emphasized he was testifying on his own behalf only, it did later come out that he has represented social media giants such as Facebook.

Grimes spends her time studying social networks for children and the practices of social networking sites with regard to children, and in her introductory remarks she called for a new approach that would shift from trying to protect young people from the risks of social networking to empowering them to make better decisions. Some sites ban anyone under 13, but that's too easy to get around. Too much data is also being collected on children and their online activities and being used for marketing purposes, without the informed consent of the children or their parents. She called for the development of more kid-friendly user agreements in language they can understand, and regulation to control the collection and use of data of children collected online. She also made the point that social network creating kid-friendly walled-gardens for young people won't work; she wants to give companies guidelines that balance risk with responsibility and education.

Israel said users feel like they've lost all control of their data as more and more of it is being collected and used, raising alarm about the rise of data brokers such as Acxiom, which harvest and sell detailed profiles of individuals based on their publicly-available Internet activities, from brand preferences to medical conditions. MPs from all parties would come back to the data broker issue and express surprise and concern. Kardash cautioned these businesses are mainly in the U.S. where laws are different and they probably aren`t interested in Canada, while Israel called for regulation and the creation of a central place where you can learn what brokers have info on you, and then find out what it is. Speaking about privacy settings for social media sites, Israel called for the requirement of privacy by default, rather than open by default or whatever works best for the site's business model by default. He also called for PIPEDA and the privacy commissioner to be given some power beyond the ability to name and shame offenders, which he feels isn't sufficient deterrent.

Unsurprisingly given what we later learned about his client list, Kardash disagreed with Israel on that point. He feels PIPEDA is working just fine, thanks and is still doing a strong job of safeguarding our online privacy even as new technologies have been developed since it was drafted. He said PIPEDA needs to stay technology-neutral so you're not redrafting it every time something new is invented online or it will be obsolete before it's enacted; technology is evolving too quickly. He called for more industry self-regulation rather than supplementing PIPEDA with more regulations, and said the privacy commissioner's ability to "name and shame" offenders is more than a sufficient deterrent to would-be privacy offenders.

As we got into the rounds of questioning from the MPs, Charlie Angus from the NDP got Kardash for favouring self-regulation over tougher enforcement, and chided him for not disclosing his relationship with Facebook and other major social media companies, which he has represented with Heenan Blakie. He did insist though that he loves Facebook and his wife claims' he's addicted (Twitter, not so much). He added we're in the age of big data, and with the increase in data mining activities (companies gathering our personal data and using it to sell and market to us) there needs to be regulation.

Conservative Blaine Calkins said he used to be a data base administrator, so he understands how this information can be gathered and the prospect of data brokers such as Acxiom "frankly has me terrified." He also spoke about the long and complicated user agreements that we all agree to, usually without reading or understanding, before we use a social networking service. He wondered if it shouldn't be made possible to modify the agreement, picking some elements to accept and some to regret. I found that interesting, but it would probably have a negative impact on the business model of the service provider. There would have to be a corresponding reduction in service level.

Calkins didn't have a chance to ask about the role of parents vs. that of regulation, so Liberal Scott Andrews put that question. Grimes said we need to find  the best way to welcome young people into this social media world they've been born into; it has a ton of benefits that must be balanced with the risks. There needs to be regulation because it can't all be left to parents; there's so much to learn. Even some cyber-nanny software, she notes, is used for data collection and mining. 

Andrews followed-up by asking if we have ages at which you're allowed to drink and smoke, should there be an age limit for social media? Grimes noted its a tricky comparison, as drinking has a proven negative developmental impact on youth. She likened the web to a city, with much of it as public space. We don't ban kids from the public park, but we don't let them into bars. 

The NDP's Charmaine Borg asked if the privacy commissioner should have the power to impose sanctions when organizations routinely change the privacy settings users have agreed to, and don't do a good job of informing them, or change the user interface to avoid existing regulations. Israel said this is definitely a problem to address, but noted social media is also rapidly evolving. He called for a process that allows the privacy commissioner to adapt the principles of the privacy law to the evolving reality on the ground. Kardash again downplayed the problem, noting most companies usually work out deals with the privacy commissioner to avoid the prospect of public naming.

I found the back and forth interesting, even if it seemed to do not too much more than scratch the surface of some of these issues. And it was refreshing to see a complete lack of partisanship as MPs seemed genuinely interested in learning more about the issues at hand. Of course, that could also be because this is an opposition-backed study of little interest to the Prime Minister's Office. And any amendments to PIPEDA are likely to be written by the government without regard to this testimony. So interesting information, but unlikely to impact policy. Which may explain the lack of partisanship.

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