Tuesday, 13 August 2019 11:50

Comments on the Discussion Paper 'Promoting Trust and Confidence in Ontario's Data Economy'

Written by  Teresa Scassa
Rate this item
(0 votes)

On July 31, 2019 the Ontario Government released a discussion paper titled Promoting Trust and Confidence in Ontario’s Data Economy. This is the first in a planned series of discussion papers related to the province’s ongoing Data Strategy consultation. This particular document focuses on the first pillar of the strategy: Promoting Trust and Confidence. The other pillars are: Creating Economic Benefit; and Enabling Better, Smarter Government. The entire consultation process is moving at lightning speed. The government plans to have a final data strategy in place by the end of this calendar year.

My first comment on the document is about timing. A release on July 31, with comments due by September 6, means that it hits both peak vacation season and mad back to school rush. This is not ideal for gathering feedback on such an important set of issues. A further timing issue is the release of this document and the call for comments before the other discussion papers are available. The result is a discussion paper that considers trust and confidence in a policy vacuum, even though it makes general reference to some pretty big planned changes to how the public sector will handle Ontarians’ personal information as well as planned new measures to enable businesses to derive economic benefit from data. It would have been very useful to have detailed information about what the government is thinking about doing on these two fronts before being asked what would ensure ongoing trust and confidence in the collection, use and disclosure of Ontarians’ data. Of course, this assumes that the other two discussion documents will contain these details – they might not.

My second comment is about the generality of this document. This is not a consultation paper that proposes a particular course of action and seeks input or comment. It describes the current data context in broad terms and asks questions that are very general and open-ended. Here are a couple of examples: “How can the province help businesses – particularly small and medium-sized businesses – better protect their consumers’ data and use data-driven practices responsibly?” “How can the province build capacity and promote culture change concerning privacy and data protection throughout the public sector (e.g., through training, myth-busting, new guidance and resources for public agencies)?” It’s not that the questions are bad ones – most of them are important, challenging and worth thinking about. But they are each potentially huge in scope. Keep in mind that the Data Strategy that these questions are meant to inform is to be released before the end of 2019. It is hard to believe that anything much could be done with responses to such broad questions other than to distil general statements in support of a strategy that must already be close to draft stage.

That doesn’t mean that there are not a few interesting nuggets to mine from within the document. Currently, private sector data protection in Ontario is governed by the federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. This is because, unlike Alberta, B.C. and Quebec, Ontario has not enacted a substantially similar private sector data protection law. Is it planning to? It is not clear from this document, but there are hints that it might be. The paper states that it is important to “[c]larify and strengthen Ontario’s jurisdiction and the application of provincial and federal laws over data collected from Ontarians.” (at p. 13) One of the discussion questions is “How can Ontario promote privacy protective practices throughout the private sector, building on the principles underlying the federal government’s private sector privacy legislation (the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act)?” Keep in mind that a private member’s bill was introduced by a Liberal backbencher just before the last election that set out a private sector data protection law for Ontario. There’s a draft text already out there.

Given that this is a data strategy document for a government that is already planning to make major changes to how public sector data is handled, there are a surprising number of references to the private sector. For example, in the section on threats and risks of data-driven practices, there are three examples of data breaches, theft and misuse – none of which are from Ontario’s public sector. This might support the theory that private sector data protection legislation is in the offing. On the other hand, Ontario has jurisdiction over consumer protection; individuals are repeatedly referred to as “consumers” in the document. It may be that changes are being contemplated to consumer protection legislation, particularly in areas such as behavioural manipulation, and algorithmic bias and discrimination. Another question hints at possible action around online consumer contracts. These would all be interesting developments.

There is a strange tension between public and private sectors in the document. Most examples of problems, breaches, and technological challenges are from the private sector, while the document remains very cagey about the public sector. It is this cageyness about the public sector that is most disappointing. The government has already taken some pretty serious steps on the road to its digital strategy. For example, it is in the process of unrolling much broader sharing of personal information across the public sector through amendments to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act passed shortly after the election. These will take effect once data standards are in place (my earlier post on these amendments is here). The same bill enacted the Simpler, Faster, Better, Services Act. This too awaits regulations setting standards before it takes effect (my earlier post on this statute is here). These laws were passed under the public radar because they were rushed through in an omnibus budget bill and with little debate. It would be good to have a clear, straightforward document from the government that outlines what it plans to do under both of these new initiatives and what it will mean for Ontarians and their personal data. Details of this kind would be very helpful in allowing Ontarians to make informed comments on trust and confidence. For example, the question “What digital and data-related threats to human rights and civil liberties pose the greatest risk for Ontarians” (p. 14) might receive different answers if readers were prompted to think more specifically about the plans for greater sharing of personal data across government, and a more permissive approach to disclosures for investigatory purposes (see my post on this issue here).

The discussion questions are organized by category. Interestingly, there is a separate category for ‘Privacy, Data Protection and Data Governance’. That’s fine – but consider that there is a later category titled Human Rights and Civil Liberties. Those of us who think privacy is a human right might find this odd. It is also odd that the human rights/civil liberties discussion is separated from data governance since they are surely related. It is perhaps wrong to read too much into this, since the document was no doubt drafted quickly. But thinking about privacy as a human right is important. The document’s focus on trust and confidence seems to relegate privacy to a lower status. It states: “A loss of trust reduces people’s willingness to share data or give social license for its use. Likewise, diminishing confidence impedes the creative risk-taking at the heart of experimentation, innovation and investment.” (at p. 8) In this plan, protection of privacy is about ensuring trust which will in turn foster a thriving data economy. The fundamental question at the heart of this document is thus not: ‘what measures should be taken to ensure that fundamental values are protected and respected in a digital economy and society”. Rather, it is: ‘What will it take to make you feel ok about sharing large quantities of personal information with business and government to drive the economy and administrative efficiencies?’ This may seem like nitpicking, but keep in mind that the description of the ‘Promoting Trust and Confidence’ pillar promises “world-leading, best-in-class protections that benefits the public and ensures public trust and confidence in the data economy” (page 4). Right now, Europe’s GDPR offers the world-leading, best-in-class protections. It does so because it treats privacy as a human right and puts the protection of this and other human rights and civil liberties at the fore. A process that puts feeling ok about sharing lots of data at the forefront won’t keep pace.

Teresa Scassa

Latest from Teresa Scassa

Related items (by tag)

back to top