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Teresa Scassa

Teresa Scassa

Note: As I started to write this post, which comments on the recent B.C. Court of Appeal decision in Vancouver Community College v. Vancouver Career College (Burnaby) Inc., I realized that it was going to be far too long for a single post. I have decided to divide the issues in two. This first post will focus on the official mark question and the issue of goodwill (the first element in a passing off action). A second post will later deal with issues of confusion and damages in passing off.

The BC Court of Appeal has recently ruled in a case that involves allegations of online trademark infringement. The parties raised issues around the purchase of keyword advertising, the use of trademarks in metatags and domain names, and the infringement of official marks. However, the Court’s decision ultimately addresses only a subset of these issues, and refers the question of official marks back to the trial court because of deficiencies in the factual record. The Court of Appeal’s decision focuses on passing off. In doing so, it touches on some questions unique to the internet context.

The dispute involves two educational institutions with very similar names and a shared acronym. The appellant Vancouver Community College is a post-secondary institution with official designation under B.C.’s College and Institute Act. It began its existence as the Vancouver City College in 1964, changing its name to Vancouver Community College in 1974. The respondent is a private career college called Vancouver Career College. It has operated under that name since 1997. Over time it has expanded its operations considerably. It is regulated under the province’s Private Training Act. Not only do both institutions share the identical acronym VCC, the only difference in their full names is with respect to the middle of the three words used in each. Both names are highly descriptive, and, as such, are inherently weak trademarks.

Because of its links to government, Vancouver Community College has taken advantage of the official marks provisions of the Trade-marks Act. These provisions allow a “public authority” to circumvent the usual requirements for trademark registration in order to protect a name or mark. The protection available for official marks is more extensive and more enduring than trademark protection, and the scheme is controversial. While a business would not be allowed to register a trademark that is entirely descriptive without being able to demonstrate that it had acquired secondary meaning, the official marks regime is indiscriminate when it comes to marks. The Vancouver Community College claimed ‘VCC’ as an official mark in January 1999 and also holds the official mark ‘Vancouver Community College’ since 2005. Both dates are later than the adoption by Vancouver Career College of its name – and quite possibly its adoption of the acronym VCC. Case law supports the view that the rather generous protection for official marks is only prospective; uses of the same or highly similar marks that predate the publication of the official marks are permitted to continue, although their use cannot expand to new products or services. The trial judge had found that the prior use of its own name and acronym by the Vancouver Career College insulated it from claims that it violated the Vancouver Community College’s official marks. The Court of Appeal ruled that the factual record was not sufficient to decide the issue. They sought additional facts as to the extent and nature of the use of each of the marks, whether the use by the respondent of the acronym had so expanded as to negate the defence of prior use, as well as facts relating to whether prior use had been abandoned by the time the official marks were published. In addition, because the Court of Appeal had concluded that the Career College’s prior use was tortious, it speculated as to whether the tortious adoption of a mark could count as prior use. It is an interesting question, but as I will discuss below, the Court of Appeal’s conclusions on the tort of passing off are not entirely satisfactory. At this point, it should be noted that there is some circularity around the issue of passing off and official marks. The Community College’s ability to obtain an official mark appears to bolster its claim to goodwill/reputation in the Court of Appeal’s reasoning. Yet official marks receive no scrutiny by the Registrar; they can be descriptive, generic, or confusing with existing marks – there really are few boundaries. As a result, the two analyses must be kept distinct. There may be a violation of rights in an official mark without there being a sufficient factual basis to support a finding of passing off. The threshold for the first is much lower than the second since all that needs to be shown is the existence of an official mark. For passing off it is necessary to establish sufficient goodwill/reputation – in other words, a plaintiff has to show that a mark distinguishes it as the source of particular goods or services.

A plaintiff in a passing off case must establish three elements: goodwill, a likelihood of confusion and a likelihood of damage. The first element requires the plaintiff to prove that they have acquired goodwill in a particular mark (whether it be a name, design, acronym, or some other indicium). In this case, the mark at issue is VCC which is an acronym for both Vancouver Community College and for Vancouver Career College. The law of passing off is not particularly generous to those who lack imagination or forethought in coming up with names. Names that are entirely descriptive make poor trademarks. The law is reluctant to provide a kind of monopoly over terms that simply describe a product or service. Both college names share “Vancouver” and “College” – both institutions are based in Vancouver and are of a kind typically referred to as “colleges”. The middle word is different but starts with the same letter, leading to two identical acronyms. As a result, the Community College’s acronym, on the face of it, is very weak. It deserves almost no protection from the law of passing off unless it is able to show that it has acquired such a level of distinctiveness through use by the Community College, that the public now associates VCC with its particular services. Further, even if it succeeds in showing acquired goodwill, it is not necessarily entitled to have the defendant’s use of its mark enjoined. The defendant might still be capable of using the same descriptive mark so long as, in doing so, it takes steps to ensure there is no confusion.

The trial judge had concluded that the Vancouver Community College did not have goodwill in the VCC mark. This was in part based on his finding that ‘VCC’ had been little used by the Community College between 1990 and 2013. The trial judge referred to the added level of distinctiveness required for an entirely descriptive mark as “secondary meaning”, and he was correct to do so. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal took issue with this approach. It opined that because what was at issue was the name of the college, it was not necessary to establish secondary meaning. Instead, it framed the question as whether the acronym VCC “carried sufficient distinctiveness in its primary sense to be recognized as designating the appellant and the educational services it provides.” (at para 40) This argument seems to either miss the point that the name of the college is entirely descriptive as well, or it conflates the name of the college with its status as a public institution. Unlike the B.C. University Act, which limits use of the term “university” to only specified institutions, the College and Institute Act gives no special protection to the term “college”. The Court of Appeal emphasized the public nature of the Community College and found that: “Its public character establishes a level of public awareness of the role it plays in the community” (at para 47). As a public institution, the Community College has access to official marks protection. Yet the huge boondoggle that is official marks protection should only count once – in the context of an official marks analysis – and should not be used to shape a passing off analysis that requires that marks be shown to be sufficiently distinctive to have acquired goodwill or reputation as a condition of their protection.

“Vancouver Community College” effectively describes a community college located in Vancouver. It is entirely descriptive. The acronym VCC similarly lacks inherent distinctiveness. In fact, it could stand for Vancouver Civic Centre, Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Vancouver City Centre, or, in this case Vancouver Career College – to give just a few examples. The Court of Appeal’s decision sets a low threshold for goodwill/reputation in the face of a rather common acronym for a highly descriptive name. While it found sufficient evidence of an association by the public between VCC and the Community College, noting that the acronym was used in media reports, brochures, calendars and other materials, and it was the name of the SkyTrain station near the appellant’s campus. However, the extent of this association (or whether there is also a public association between VCC and the Career College) is not at all clear from the facts.

It may ultimately be that the Community College has acquired sufficient goodwill in ‘VCC’ to support an action in passing off. My difficulty with the resolution of this issue is with the road taken to get there. The Court of Appeal never acknowledged the weakness of either Vancouver Community College or VCC as marks in the context of the passing off analysis. While it is still possible to find that such a weak mark as VCC had acquired sufficient goodwill to provide a basis for an action in passing off, the inherent descriptiveness of the mark is relevant to the rest of the passing off analysis. For example, courts have found that minor differences in presentation of goods or services, or the use of disclaimers may sufficiently reduce any possibility of confusion between similar descriptive marks. The interweaving of the official marks issues with the passing off issues is perhaps to blame here. The Court of Appeal seems to be giving the Community College credit for being a public institution, and its burden of establishing goodwill seems to be lightened as a result. This approach ignores the very special (i.e., ‘anomalous ‘ or ‘problematic’) character of official marks.

Note: Part 2 of this comment is now available here.

 

 

 

 

This post is based upon a presentation I gave at a panel organized jointly by the Centre for Law, Technology and Society and the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa on February 1, 2017.

Canada is on the cusp of passing new legislation and enacting new regulations that will put us among a growing number of countries that have made plain packaging mandatory for tobacco products. Bill S-5, currently before the Senate, will amend the Tobacco Act to enable regulations to dictate the appearance of tobacco packaging. While the regulations are not currently available, it is to be expected that they will contain measures similar to those already introduced in Australia and Britain. Essentially plain packaging means prescribing a plain colour, size and configuration for all tobacco packages. In addition, packages will be used to convey graphic images and public health warnings. The only permitted use of tobacco trademarks will be of word marks consisting of the brand name and sub name in a prescribed font, colour and type-size. Tobacco trademarks consisting of logos, crests, images, colour, shape, configuration, or design will no longer be capable of use on tobacco product packaging.

Plain packaging is a movement driven by the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, of which Canada is a signatory. Interestingly, however, the treaty does not require signatories to implement plain packaging. Article 11 of the Convention addresses packaging, but merely requires that false and deceptive elements on packaging be banned (e.g. using “mild” to designate cigarettes that are every bit as harmful as regular cigarettes); that health warnings take up 30-50% of packaging surface; and that packages contain information about constituent ingredients and product emissions. Canada’s current packaging regulations are consistent with these requirements. Plain packaging is merely mentioned as something that signatory states “should consider” in paragraph 46 of the Guidelines for Implementing Article 11 of the Convention. Thus, it is important to underline that Canada is not under an international obligation to introduce plain packaging legislation.

While the link between smoking and serious illness/death seems uncontestable, and the reduction of smoking is clearly an important public health objective, there is reason to question the wisdom of the plain packaging approach. Australia was the first country to introduce plain packaging in 2011. Its legislation survived a constitutional challenge (it was argued to be an illegal expropriation of trademark owners’ rights), and is currently being challenged before the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a violation of Australia’s obligations under the TRIPS Agreement. Although considerable sums of money have been spent on defending Australia’s statute, the evidence emerging as to the beneficial impact of the legislation is ambivalent.

Plain packaging measures in Canada are also likely to face legal challenges. Restrictions on the use of trademarks in the 1988 Tobacco Products Control Act were found by the Supreme Court of Canada to be a violation of the freedom of expression of trademark owners that could not be justified under s. 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These provisions were struck down by the Court. Provisions related to the use of tobacco trademarks in sponsorship activities in a reconstituted Tobacco Act were also challenged for violating the freedom of expression, but the Supreme Court in 2007 found that the violation was justified as rationally connected to a pressing and substantial government objective, and that it minimally impaired the rights concerned. The takeaway from these cases is that restrictions on the use of tobacco trademarks (such as those necessary to implement plain packaging) clearly violate the freedom of expression. In any court challenge, therefore, the issue will be whether the measures can be justified under s. 1 of the Charter as a “reasonable limit, demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. It is important to remember that plain packaging restrictions are extreme and the evidence linking plain packaging to harm reduction is ambivalent. It is not obvious at the outset that such measures would survive a Charter challenge.

Trademark owners have also objected that the restrictions will harm their ability to acquire and maintain trademark rights in relation to tobacco products. Bill S-5 contains provisions that indicate that non-use of tobacco trademarks resulting from plain packaging regulations will not be a basis for the invalidation of existing registered trademarks. However, this does not settle the question. Trademark rights cannot be acquired (or maintained) at common law without use, and the law does nothing to address this category of rights. Further, certain kinds of trademarks (distinguishing guises, three-dimensional marks and other non-traditional subject marks soon to become registrable in Canada) cannot be registered until they have acquired distinctiveness through use. Plain packaging regulations might therefore constitute a bar to the registration of certain types of trademarks for use in relation to tobacco products.

Canada’s existing international obligations under both the TRIPS Agreement and the NAFTA may lead to further challenges to the introduction of plain packaging. The creation of an impediment to the registration of certain types of trademarks for tobacco products may violate Article 15 of TRIPS, and there is an open and ongoing debate as to whether plain packaging laws also violate Article 20 which provides that “The use of a trademark in the course of trade shall not be unjustifiably encumbered by special requirements, such as use with another trademark, use in a special form or use in a manner detrimental to its capability to distinguish the goods or services of one undertaking from those of other undertakings.. . “. Australia’s legislation has been challenged under TRIPS, and a decision on its compliance with that treaty may be imminent.

For its part, Article 1110 of the NAFTA provides that no member state can take a measure that is “tantamount to expropriation” of an investment except in limited circumstances which include a requirement to pay compensation. It is not clear whether a U.S.-based tobacco company could succeed before a NAFTA tribunal in arguing that the plain packaging laws amounted to an expropriation of their investment in their trademarks. The domestic challenge to Australia’s legislation turned on a property rights clause in the Australian constitution, and raised the question of whether the plain packaging was an expropriation of trademark rights. The majority of the court found that it did not, but of course that decision would not be binding on a NAFTA tribunal.

The plain packaging regulations on the horizon for Canada are being introduced in the face of considerable uncertainty as to their legality both under Canada’s constitution and Canada’s international trade obligations. The extensive resources required to defend such measures should be weighed carefully not just against the likelihood of success of any challenges, but also against the public health benefits that are likely to flow from further changes to how tobacco products are packaged in Canada.

It is perhaps also worth noting that there have been rumblings about plain packaging measures for other products considered harmful to public health, such as alcoholic beverages and junk food. The issues raised in relation to tobacco products have much broader implications, making this file one to watch.

On January 24, 2017, Justice Peacock of the Quebec Superior Court certified a class action law suit against Uber Technologies and three of its related companies. The plaintiff, a Quebec taxi driver and permit holder, represents a class of plaintiffs consisting of individuals and companies who are holders of taxi permits and/or licences to drive taxis in designated regions of Quebec since October 28, 2013. That date marks the moment when UberX services became available in Quebec.

The law suit seeks compensation from Uber and its related companies for damages alleged to have been suffered by the plaintiffs as a result of Uber’s unlicensed and unauthorized operations in Quebec. The alleged damages include the loss of revenue suffered by drivers and permit owners, as well as the loss of value of taxi permits. Because the Quebec government authorized a pilot project in Quebec in the fall of 2016 which provides a framework for UberX to be legally deployed in the province, Justice Peacock restricted the period during which damages could be claimed to between October 28, 2013 and October 15, 2016 – the period of Uber’s alleged unauthorized operations in Quebec.

The certification of a class action law suit is far from a decision on the merits of the case. At this early stage, the court’s role is to filter out applications that are entirely without merit. The plaintiff need only show that he or she has an arguable case. Justice Peacock found that the representative plaintiff in this case had met that threshold. He framed the questions to be decided in the lawsuit as whether the defendants, through their activities in Quebec, had violated laws, including those relating to the taxi business. If so, it would be necessary to determine whether they had engaged in unfair competition. If they are found to be at fault, the court would have to determine the appropriate quantum of damages for both drivers and permit owners, both in terms of lost revenue and devaluation of permits.

Justice Peacock noted that, while not determinative of the issues in this case, a judge in another Quebec case had recently found that Uber drivers were acting outside the law by offering taxi services without the proper permits. Justice Peacock found that this earlier decision at least lent some credence to the view that the class plaintiff had an arguable case. He also found that there was sufficient evidence to support the argument that the class had suffered both lost revenues and lost value of their permits. Noting that the court could take judicial notice of the law of supply and demand, he observed that the value of a taxi permit in Quebec would necessarily be devalued if a considerable number of UberX drivers began offering services in competition with taxis.

Uber Technologies, the California-based company responsible for the development of the Uber app argued that it should not be joined as a defendant in the suit since its only connection to the province of Quebec was via the availability of its app in virtual app stores. It argued that this was too tenuous a connection to give rise to the court’s jurisdiction. Further, it argued that its actions in developing an app were not per se illegal. The court dismissed this argument noting that under Quebec law, courts may take jurisdiction over a matter where a fault is committed in Quebec or where harm is caused in that province. In this case, Justice Peacock noted, if the app developed by Uber Technologies was used to facilitate the commission of the delict (tort) of unfair competition in Quebec, then this in and of itself could be actionable.

Although the class action lawsuit by Quebec taxi drivers and permit holders has cleared an initial hurdle, it is a long way from being over. The case will be interesting to watch as municipalities across Canada struggle to address the challenges posed by the rise of ride-sharing services such as UberX and their disruption of incumbent taxi industries.

How does one balance transparency with civil liberties in the context of election campaigns? This issue is at the core of a decision just handed down by the Supreme Court of Canada.

B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association v. Attorney-General (B.C.) began as a challenge by the appellant organization to provisions of B.C.’s Election Act that required individuals or organizations who “sponsor election advertising” to register with the Chief Electoral Officer. Information on the register is publicly available. The underlying public policy goals to allow the public to see who is sponsoring advertising campaigns during the course of elections. The Supreme Court of Canada easily found this objective to be “pressing and substantial”.

The challenge brought by the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (BCFIPA) was based on the way in which the registration requirement was framed in the Act. The Canada Elections Act also contains a registration requirement, but the requirement is linked to a spending threshold. In other words, under the federal statute, those who spend more than $500 on election advertising are required to register; others are not. The B.C. legislation is framed instead in terms of a general registration requirement for all sponsors of election advertising. BCFIPA’s concern was that this would mean that any individual who placed a handmade sign in their window, who wore a t-shirt with an election message, or who otherwise promoted their views during an election campaign would be forced to register. Not only might this chill freedom of political expression in its own right, it would raise significant privacy issues for individuals since they would have to disclose not just their names, but their addresses and other contact information in the register. Thus, the BCFIPA sought to have the registration requirement limited by the Court to only those who spent more than $500 on an election campaign.

The problem in this case was exacerbated by the position taken by B.C.’s Chief Electoral Officer. In a 2010 report to the B.C. legislature, he provided his interpretation of the application of the legislation. He expressed the view that it did not “distinguish between those sponsors conducting full media campaigns and individuals who post handwritten signs in their apartment windows.” (at para 19). This interpretation of the Election Act was accepted by both the trial judge and at the Court of Appeal, and it shaped the argument before those courts as well as their decisions.

The Supreme Court of Canada took an entirely different approach. They interpreted the language “sponsor election advertising” to mean something other than the expression of political views by individuals. In other words, the statute applied only to those who sponsored election advertising – i.e., those who paid for election advertising to be conducted or who received such services as a contribution. The Court was of the view that the public policy behind registration requirements was generally sound. It found that a legislature could mitigate the impact on freedom of expression by either setting a monetary threshold to trigger the requirement (as is the case at the federal level) or by defining sponsorship to exclude individual expression (as was the case in B.C.). While it is true that the B.C. statute could still capture organized activities involving expenditures of less than $500, and might thus have some limiting effect, the Court found that this would not be significant for a number of reasons, and that such impacts were easily reconcilable with the benefits of the registration scheme.

The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada will be useful in clarifying the scope and impact of the Election Act and in providing guidance for similar statutes. It should be noted however, that the case traveled to the Supreme Court of Canada at great cost both to BCFIPA and to the taxpayer because of either legislative inattention to the need to clarify the scope of the legislation or because of an over-zealous interpretation of the statute by the province’s Chief Electoral Officer. The situation highlights the need for careful attention to be paid at the outset of such initiatives to the balance that must be struck between transparency and other competing values such as civil liberties and privacy.

 

The U.S has cleared the way for the use of citizen science by federal government agencies and departments in a new law titled the American Competitiveness and Innovation Act (ACIA) (awaiting presidential signature).

The ACIA as a whole should be of interest to Canadians, as it lays out the principles for how the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States should approach its mandate to support scientific research. Earlier bills failed to reach acceptable compromises; some of these would have restricted types of scientific research funded by the NSF to specific sectors. This has echoes of the controversial choices in Canada under the previous government to focus on applied rather than basic scientific research. The American Competitiveness and Innovation Act has moved away from this narrow approach and sets out two main criteria for funding scientific research: intellectual merit and broader public impacts.

The ACIA contains a distinct section titled the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act (CCSA) which paves the way for the use by government agencies and departments of scientific research practices based upon distributed public participation. The CCSA defines citizen science as “a form of open collaboration in which individuals or organizations participate voluntarily in the scientific process in various ways.” (§402(3)(c)(1)) The level of participation can vary, and may include public participation in the development of research questions or in project design, in conducting research, in collecting, analyzing or interpreting data, in developing technologies and applications, in making discoveries and in solving problems. In its preamble, the CCSA acknowledges some of the unique benefits of crowd-sourced research, including cost-effectiveness, providing hands-on learning opportunities, and encouraging greater citizen engagement.

The CCSA specifically empowers the heads of federal science agencies to make use of crowdsourcing and citizen science to conduct research projects that will advance their missions. It enables the use of volunteers in research – something that might otherwise become entangled in red tape. The Act also directs agencies to draft appropriate policies to govern participant consent, and to address “privacy, intellectual property, data ownership, compensation, service, program and other terms of use to the participant in a clear and reasonable manner.” (§402(4))

Significantly, the CCSA also mandates that any data collected through citizen science research enabled under the legislation should be made available to the public as open data in a machine-readable format unless to do so is against the law. It also requires the agency to provide notifications to the public about the expected use of the data, any ownership issues relating to the data, and how the data will be made available to the public. (I note that these issues are addressed in my co-authored guide Managing Intellectual Property Rights in Citizen Science published by the Wilson Center Commons Lab.) The statute also encourages agencies, where possible, to make any technologies, applications or code that are developed as part of the project available to the public. This legislated commitment to open research data and open source technology is an important public policy statement.

One barrier to the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science in the government context is the fear of liability within the risk-averse culture of governments. The CCSA addresses this by proving that participants in citizen science projects enabled under the statute agree to assume all risks of participation, and to waive any claims of liability against the federal government or its agencies.

The CCSA permits federal agencies to partner with community groups, other government agencies, or the private sector for the purposes of carrying out citizen science research. After a two-year grace period, the statute also requires the filing of reports on any citizen science or crowd-sourcing projects carried out under the CCSA, and contains detailed requirements for the content of any such report.

The inclusion in this science and innovation bill of provisions that are specifically designed to facilitate and encourage the use of citizen science by governments is a significant development. It is one that should be of interest to a federal government in Canada that is attempting to carve out space for itself as open, pro-science and keen to engage citizens. Citizen science has significant potential in many fields of scientific research; it also brings with it benefits in terms of education, citizen engagement, and community development.

 

Monday, 19 December 2016 08:52

Open licensing of real time data

Municipalities are under growing pressure to become “smart”. In other words, they will reap the benefits of sophisticated data analytics carried out on more and better data collected via sensors embedded throughout the urban environment. As municipalities embrace smart cities technology, a growing number of the new sensors will capture data in real time. Municipalities are also increasingly making their data open to developers and civil society alike. If municipal governments decide to make real-time data available as open data, what should an open real-time data license look like? This is a question Alexandra Diebel and I explore in a new paper just published in the Journal of e-Democracy.

Our paper looks at how ten North American public transit authorities (6 in the U.S. and 4 in Canada) currently make real-time GPS public transit data available as open data. We examine the licenses used by these municipalities both for static transit data (timetables, route data) and for real-time GPS data (for example data about where transit vehicles are along their routes in real-time). Our research reveals differences in how these types of data are licensed, even when both types of data are referred to as “open” data.

There is no complete consensus on the essential characteristics of open data. Nevertheless, most definitions require that to be open, data must be: (1) made available in a reusable format; (2) prepared according to certain standards; and (3) available under an open license with minimal restrictions or conditions imposed on reuse. In our paper, we focus on the third element – open licensing. To date, most of what has been written about open licensing in general and the licensing of open data in particular, has focused on the licensing of static data. Static data sets are typically downloaded through an open data portal in a one-time operation (although static data sets may still be periodically updated). By contrast, real-time data must be accessed on an ongoing basis and often at fairly short intervals such as every few seconds.

The need to access data from a host server at frequent intervals places a greater demand on the resources of the data custodian – in this case often cash-strapped municipalities or public agencies. The frequent access required may also present security challenges, as servers may be vulnerable to distributed denial-of-service attacks. In addition, where municipal governments or their agencies have negotiated with private sector companies for the hardware and software to collect and process real-time data, the contracts with those companies may require certain terms and conditions to find their way into open licenses. Each of these factors may have implications for how real-time data is made available as open data. The greater commercial value of real-time data may also motivate some public agencies to alter how they make such data available to the public.

While our paper focuses on real-time GPS public transit data, similar issues will likely arise in a variety of other contexts where ‘open’ real-time data are at issue. We consider how real-time data is licensed, and we identify additional terms and conditions that are imposed on users of ‘open’ real-time data. While some of these terms and conditions might be explained by the particular exigencies of real-time data (such as requirements to register for the API to access the data), others are more difficult to explain. Our paper concludes with some recommendations for the development of a standard for open real-time data licensing.

This paper is part of ongoing research carried out as part of Geothink, a partnership grant project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

 

Many Canadians are justifiably concerned that the vast amounts of information they share with private sector companies – simply by going about their day-to-day activities – may end up in the hands of law enforcement or national security officials without their knowledge or consent. The channels through which vast amounts of personal data can flow from private sector hands to law enforcement with little transparency or oversight can turn the companies we do business with into informers and make us unwittingly complicit in our own surveillance.

A recent Finding of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) illustrates how the law governing the treatment of our personal information in the hands of the private sector has been adapted to the needs of the surveillance state in ways that create headaches for businesses and their customers alike. The Finding, which posted on the OPC site in November 2016 attempts to unravel a tangle of statutory provisions that should not have to be read by anyone making less than $300 per hour.

Basically, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) governs how personal information is collected, used and disclosed by private sector organizations at the federal level and in all provinces that do not have their own equivalent statutes (only Quebec, B.C. and Alberta do). One of the core principles of this statute is the right of access to one’s personal information. This means that individuals may ask to be informed about the existence, use and disclosure of their personal information in the hands of an organization. They must also be given access to that information on request. Without the right of access it would be difficult for us to find out whether an organization was in compliance with its privacy policies. The right of access also allows us to verify and request correction of any erroneous information.

Another core principle of PIPEDA is consent. This means that information about us should not be collected, used or disclosed without our consent. The consent principle is meant to give us some control over our personal information (although there are huge challenges in this age of overly-long, vague, and jargon-laden privacy policies).

The hunger for our personal information on the part of law enforcement and national security officials (check out these Telco transparency reports here, here and here) has led to a significant curtailment of both the principles of access and of consent. The law is riddled with exceptions that permit private sector companies to disclose our personal information to state authorities in a range of situations without our knowledge or consent, with or without a warrant or court order. Other exceptions allow these disclosures to be hidden from us if we make access requests. What this means is that, in some circumstances, organizations that have disclosed an individual’s information to state authorities, and that later receive an access request from the individual seeking to know if their information has been disclosed to a third party, must contact the state authority to see if they are permitted to reveal that information has been shared. If the state authority objects, then the individual is not told of the disclosure.

The PIPEDA Report of Findings No. 2016-008 follows a complaint by an individual who contacted her telecommunications company and requested access to her personal information in the hands of that company. Part of the request was for “any information about disclosures of my personal information, or information about my account or devices, to other parties, including law enforcement and other state agencies.” (at para 4). She received a reply from the Telco to the effect that it was “fully in compliance with subsections 9(2.1), (2.2), (2.3) and (2.4) of [PIPEDA].” (at para 5) In case that response was insufficiently obscure, the Telco also provided the wording of the subsections in question. The individual complained to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC).

The OPC decision makes it clear that the exceptions to the access principle place both the individual and the organization in a difficult spot. Basically, an organization that has disclosed information to state authorities without the individual’s knowledge or consent, and that receives an access request regarding this disclosure, must check with the relevant state authority to see if they have any objection to the disclosure of information about the disclosure. The state authorities can object if the disclosure of the disclosure would pose a threat to national security, national defence or the conduct of international affairs, or would adversely impact investigations into money laundering or terrorist financing. Beyond that, the state authorities can also object if disclosure would adversely impact “the enforcement of any law of Canada, a province or a foreign jurisdiction, an investigation relating to the enforcement of any such law, or the gathering of intelligence for the purpose of enforcing any such law.” If the state authorities object, then the organization may not disclose the requested information to the individual, nor can they disclose that they contacted the state authorities about the request, or that the authorities objected to any disclosure. In the interests of having a modicum of transparency, the organization must inform the Privacy Commissioner of the situation.

The situation is complex enough that in its finding, the OPC produced a helpful chart to guide organizations through the whole process. The chart can be found in the Finding.

In this case, the Telco justified its response to the complainant by explaining that if pushed further by a customer about disclosures, it would provide additional information, but even this additional information would be necessarily obscure. The Commissioner found that the Telco’s approach was not compliant with the law, but acknowledged that compliance with the law could mean that a determined applicant, by virtue of repeated requests over time, could come up with a pattern of responses that might lead them to infer whether information was actually disclosed, and whether the state authority objected to the disclosure. This is perhaps not what Parliament intended, but it does seem to follow from a reading of the statute.

As a result of the complaint, the Telco agreed to change its responses to access requests to conform to the requirements outlined in the table above.

It may well be that this kind of information-sharing offers some, perhaps significant, benefits to society, and that sharing information about information sharing could, in some circumstances, be harmful to investigations. The problem is that protections for privacy – including appropriate oversight and limitations – have not kept pace with the technologies that have turned private sector companies into massive warehouses of information about every detail of our lives and activities. The breakdown of consent means that we have little practical control over what is collected, and rampant information sharing means that our information may be in the hands of many more companies than those with which we actively do business. The imbalance is staggering, as is the risk of abuse. The ongoing review of PIPEDA must address these gaps issues – although there are also risks that it will result in the addition of more exceptions from the principles of access and consent.

 

 

 

 

The Supreme Court of Canada has issued a relatively rare decision on the interpretation of Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). Although it involves fairly technical facts that are quite specific to the banking and mortgage context, the broader significance of the case lies in the Court’s approach to implied consent under PIPEDA.

The case arose in the context of the Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC) attempt to obtain a mortgage discharge statement for property owned by two individuals (the Trangs), who defaulted on a loan advanced by the bank. The mortgage was registered against a property in Toronto, on which Scotiabank held the first mortgage. In order to recover the money owed to it, RBC sought a judicial sale of the property, but the sheriff would not carry out the sale without the mortgage discharge statement. Scotiabank refused to provide this statement to RBC on the basis that it contained the Trangs’ personal information and it could therefore not be disclosed to RBC without the Trangs’ consent.

PIPEDA allows for the disclosure of personal information without consent in a number of different circumstances. Three of these, raised by lawyers for RBC, include where it is for the purpose of collecting a debt owed by the individual to the organization; where the disclosure is required by a court order; and where the disclosure is required by law. Ultimately, the Court only considered the second of these exceptions. Because Scotiabank refused to disclose the discharge statement, RBC had applied to a court for a court order that would enable disclosure without consent. However, it found itself caught in a procedural loop – it seemed to be asking the court to order disclosure on the basis of a court order which the court had yet to grant. Although the Court of Appeal had found the court order exception to be inapplicable because of this circularity, the Supreme Court of Canada swept aside these objections in favour of a more pragmatic approach. Justice Côté found that the court had the power to make an order and felt that an order was appropriate in the circumstances. She ruled that it would be “overly formalistic and detrimental to access to justice” to require RBC to reformulate its request for a court order in a new proceeding.

Although this would have been enough to decide the matter, Justice Côté, for the unanimous court, went on to find that the Trangs had given implied consent to the disclosure of the mortgage statement in any event. Under PIPEDA, consent can be implied in some circumstances. Express consent is generally required where information is sensitive in nature. Acknowledging that financial information is generally considered highly sensitive, Justice Côté nevertheless found that in this case the mortgage discharge statement was less sensitive in nature. She stated that “the degree of sensitivity of specific financial information is a contextual determination.” (at para 36) Here, the context included the fact that a great deal of mortgage-related financial information is already in the public domain by virtue of the Land Titles Registry, which includes details such as the amount of a mortgage recorded against the property, the interest rate, payment periods and due date. Although the balance left owing on a mortgage is not provided in the Registry, it can still be roughly calculated by anyone interested in doing so. Justice Côté characterized the current balance of a mortgage as “a snapshot at a point in time in the life of a publicly disclosed mortgage.” (at para 39)

Justice Côté’s implied consent analysis was also affected by other contextual considerations. These included the fact that the party seeking disclosure of the discharge statement had an interest in it; as a creditor, it was relevant to them. According to the Court, the reasonable expectations of the individual with respect to the sensitivity of any information must be assessed in “the whole context” so as not to “unduly prioritize privacy interests over the legitimate business concerns that PIPEDA was also designed to reflect”. (at para 44) The fact that other creditors have a legitimate business interest in the information in a mortgage disclosure statement is “a relevant part of the context which informs the reasonable expectation of privacy.” (at para 45) In this regard, Justice Côté observed that the identity of the party seeking disclosure of the information and the reason for which they are seeking disclosure are relevant considerations. She noted that “[d]isclosure to a person who requires the information to exercise an established legal right is clearly different from disclosure to a person who is merely curious or seeks the information for nefarious purposes.” (at para 46)

Justice Côté also found that the reasonable mortgagor in the position of the Trangs would be aware of the public nature of the details of their mortgage, and would be aware as well that if they defaulted on either their mortgage or their loan with RBC, their mortgaged property could be seized and sold. They would also be aware that a judgment creditor would have a “legal right to obtain disclosure of the mortgage discharge statement through examination or by bringing a motion.” (at para 47)

It seems that it is the fact that RBC could ultimately legally get access to the mortgage discharge statement, viewed within the broader context that drives the Court to find that there is an implied consent to the disclosure of this information – even absent a court order. The Court’s finding of implied consent is nevertheless limited to this context; it would not be reasonable for a bank to disclose a mortgage discharge statement to anyone other than a person with a legal interest in the property to which the mortgage relates. The Court’s reasoning seems to be that since RBC is ultimately entitled to get this information and has legal means at its disposal to get the information, then the Trangs can be considered to have consented to the information being shared.

Pragmatism is often a good thing, and it is easy to be sympathetic to the Court’s desire to not create expensive legal hurdles to achieve inevitable ends in transactions that are relatively commonplace. It should be noted, however, that the same result could have been achieved by the addition of a clause in the mortgage documents that would effectively obtain the consent of any mortgagor to disclosures of this kind and in those circumstances. No doubt after the earlier decisions in this case and in the related Citi Cards Canada Inc. v. Pleasance, banks had already taken steps to address this in their mortgage documents. One of the reasons for having privacy policies is to require institutions to explain to their customers what personal information is collected, how it will be used, and in what circumstances it will be disclosed. While it is true that few people read such privacy policies, they are at least there for those who choose to do so. Nobody reads implied terms because they are… well, implied. Implied consent works where certain uses or disclosures are relatively obvious. In more complicated transactions implied consent should be sparingly relied upon.

It will be interesting to see what impact the Court’s judicial eye roll to the facts of this case will have in other circumstances where consent to disclosure is an issue. The Court is cautious enough in its contextual approach that it may not lead to a dangerous undermining of consent. Nevertheless, there is a risk that the almost exasperated pragmatism of the decision may cause a more general relaxation around consent.

The Federal Court has just released a decision in a case that raised issues of fair dealing and copyright abuse. Blacklock’s, an Ottawa-based online news agency, had argued that officials at the Department of Finance breached its copyright in news articles when these articles were circulated internally. The decision is an important confirmation of the ‘right to read’ in Canada and may go some way to dispelling the aftertaste of an earlier flawed decision by the Ontario Small Claims Court in a similar dispute.

Blacklock’s business model is to offer its news content on a subscription-only basis. Its articles are behind a paywall, and only subscribers, equipped with a password, can gain access to them. Individual subscriptions are available for $148 a year, whereas institutional subscription rates range between $11,470 and $15,670.

In this case, a reporter from Blacklock’s had interviewed the President of the Canadian Sugar Institute, Sandra Marsden, for a story relating to sugar tariff changes. The same reporter had sought comments from Department of Finance officials and ultimately had an exchange of email correspondence with the Department’s media relations officer. In what appears to be Blacklock’s practice, teasers about the story were sent out to Marsden by email and by Twitter. Based on the teasers Marsden became concerned about the accuracy of the article. She paid for an individual subscription in order to access it. After reading the article her concerns grew and she cut and pasted the article into an email, to a Department official. The same reporter wrote a follow up piece which Marsden also found problematic; she forward this piece to the Department of Finance as well. The two articles were circulated between a total of 6 Finance employees who discussed amongst themselves whether any follow-up with Blacklock’s was required. In the end it was decided that the matter should be dropped.

Justice Barnes found that there was no disputing that the Finance officials had used Blacklock’s copyright-protected material without paying for it or seeking Blacklock’s consent. The key issue was whether the use fell within the fair dealing exception for research or private study in s. 29 of the Copyright Act. After reviewing the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark fair dealing decision in CCH Canadian v. Law Society of Upper Canada and its more recent decision in SOCAN v. Bell Canada, he concluded that the use constituted fair dealing. He noted that, according to the case law, “research” does not have to lead to the creation of a new work of authorship; it can be ““piecemeal, informal, exploratory, or confirmatory”, and can be undertaken for no purpose except personal interest.” (at para 31)

Justice Barnes found that the Finance officials “had legitimate concerns about the fairness and accuracy” of the reporting in the article. Her further found the internal circulation of the piece was justified on the basis that “[e]veryone involved had a legitimate need to be aware in the event that further action was deemed necessary”. (at para 35) He identified a number of considerations that influenced his conclusion that the officials’ dealing with the material was fair. He noted that the articles had not been obtained by illegal means such as hacking the website; rather, they had been provided by a subscriber to the site who had legally accessed them and had forwarded them for “a legitimate business reason”. (at para 36) The articles had been sent to the Finance officials and not solicited by them; they received limited circulation; and they were not republished or used for any commercial purpose. The court also found that the two articles were a tiny fraction of the content available from the Blacklock’s site. Further, Justice Barnes opined that “a finding of copyright infringement against a news source for the simple act of reading the resulting copy is likely to have a chilling effect on the ability of the press to gather information.” (at para 36). Justice Barnes also stated that “copyright should not be a device that serves to protect the press from accountability for its errors and omissions.” (at para 36).

Blacklock’s had argued that its terms and conditions for access to its paywalled content had been breached when the material was forwarded to Finance officials, and that this breach should serve to negate a finding of fair dealing. Justice Barnes appeared sympathetic to this argument on its face, stating that it was a “relevant consideration” (though he did not state that it would necessarily be determinative). However, he cautioned that for this factor to be taken into account, the copyright owner would have to demonstrate that the user was aware of the terms and conditions and that the terms and conditions actually barred the conduct at issue. In this case, he found that none of the parties involved had either read or even been aware of Blacklock’s terms and conditions which were not readily part of the process for signing up for an individual subscription. He also found that the terms and conditions were not clear, stating: “On the one hand they seemingly prohibit distribution by subscribers but, on the other, they permit it for personal, or non-commercial uses.” (at para 42).

Blacklock’s also objected that a finding of fair dealing would undermine its business model – selling online news through a subscriber-only paywall. Justice Barnes was not particularly sympathetic, noting that “All subscription-based news agencies suffer from work-product leakage.” (at para 45) Further, he stated that “whatever business model Blacklock’s employs it is always subject to the fair dealing rights of third parties.” (at para 45) At the same time, he noted that by so stating, he was not endorsing “blameworthy conduct in the form of unlawful technological breaches of a paywall, misuse of passwords or the widespread exploitation of copyright material to obtain a commercial or business advantage.” (at para 45)

As I noted in an earlier comment on this case, the defendants had argued that Blacklock’s was engaged in copyright misuse and was acting as a kind of “copyright troll”. In fact, there are 9 other suits brought by Blacklock’s against the federal government on similar sets of facts. Noting that “there are certainly some troubling aspects to Blacklock’s business practices”, Justice Barnes nevertheless found it unnecessary to rule on the copyright abuse and trolling arguments in light of his findings on fair dealing. The other cases, which were stayed pending the resolution of this first dispute, may now end up being settled out of court.

In the course of his decision, Justice Barnes referred to what occurred in this case as “no more than the simple act of reading by persons with an immediate interest in the material.” (at para 36) This right to read is fundamentally important in a society that values knowledge and the freedom of expression. The decision makes it clear that business models for content distribution cannot run roughshod over certain fundamental users rights.

In a press release issued on October 26, 2016, the Ontario Provincial Police announced that they would be adopting a new investigative technique – one that relies on cellphone tracking of ordinary members of the public. The use of this new technique is being launched in the context of the investigation of an unsolved murder that took place in Ottawa in 2015. Police are searching for leads in the case.

The OPP sought a Production Order from a justice of the peace. This order required major cellular phone service providers to furnish them with a list of cellphone numbers used in the vicinity of West Hunt Club and Merivale Road in Ottawa, between 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. on December 15, 2015. Production orders for cell phone information have become commonplace. Typically, however, they have been used to determine whether a person of interest to the police was in a certain area at a specific time. This is not the case here. In this case, the police intend to send text messages to the individual cell phone numbers provided by the phone companies. These messages will encourage recipients to visit a web site set up by the police and to respond to some questions. According to the press release, the production order did not include customer name and address information associated with the phone numbers. In theory, then, individual privacy is protected by the fact that an person who does not respond to the text message does provide any further identifying information to the police.

There is clearly a public interest in solving crimes. Where investigations have grown cold, new techniques may be important to finding justice for victims and their families. However, it is also important that any new investigative techniques are consistent with the principles and values that are an integral part of our justice system. Privacy advocates and the public have reason to be concerned about this new investigative technique. Here are some of the reasons why:

First, production orders of this kind provide completely inadequate opportunities to hear and consider the privacy interests of affected individuals. Persons accused of crimes can always challenge in court the way in which the police went about collecting the evidence against them. They can argue that their privacy interests were violated and that search warrants should never have been issued. However, ordinary members of the public have little practical recourse when their privacy rights are infringed by investigations of crimes that have nothing to do with them. In a decision of the Ontario Superior Court (which I wrote about here) Justice Sproat reviewed production orders for massive amounts of cell phone data sought by police. He was sharply critical of both the seeking and the granting of a production order for quantities of cell phone customer data that far exceeded what was genuinely required for the purpose of the investigation. The case impacted the privacy rights of the broad public (it involved the data of over 43,000 customers) yet as is so often the case, the public had no way to learn of or challenge the production order before it was granted. In that case, it was the Telcos – Rogers and Telus – who challenged the production orders and raised privacy issues before the courts. Without this intervention, there would have been no voice for the privacy interests of ordinary citizens and no means of reviewing the legitimacy of the order.

Second, production orders of this kind come with no safeguards for the protection of data after it has been used by police. Production orders typically do not contain directions on how long data can be retained, whether it should be destroyed after a certain time, what other uses it might (or should not) be put to, or what safeguards are required to protect it while it is in the hands of police. The lack of such safeguards was commented upon by Justice Sproat in the case mentioned above. He was of the view that this was an issue for Parliament to address. Parliament has yet to do so.

In its press release, the OPP analogized what it was doing to police going through a neighborhood where a crime has taken place and knocking on doors to see if anyone has seen or heard anything that might be relevant. The analogy is problematic. The existence and location of houses and apartment units are matters of public record – they are in plain view. However, data about the cell phone usage of individuals, along with their location information, as they carry out their day to day activities are not. When police seek access to information that allows them to identify the locations of thousands of individuals who are not suspected of engaging in criminal activity, they are doing more than knocking on doors.

There needs to be a public conversation about how and when police get to tap into the massive volumes of data collected about the minutiae of our daily activities by private sector companies. The use of cell phone data production orders by the OPP in this case merely adds to list of subjects for that conversation. Because the use of this data by police is now to identify and contact people who are themselves not the targets of criminal investigation, these individuals effectively have no way in which to raise privacy concerns. This is a conversation that must be led by Parliament and that most likely will require new law.

 

 

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