Teresa Scassa - Blog

Friday, 08 December 2023 09:00

Oversight and Enforcement in the AIDA Amendments (Part III of a series)

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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This is Part III of a series of posts that look at the proposed amendments to Canada’s Artificial Intelligence and Data Act (which itself is still a Bill, currently before the INDU Committee for study). Part I provided a bit of context and a consideration of some of the new definitions in the Bill. Part II looked at the categories of ‘high-impact’ AI that the Bill now proposes to govern. This post looks at the changed role of the AI and Data Commissioner.

The original version of the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act (Part II of Bill C-27) received considerable criticism for its oversight mechanisms. Legal obligations for the ethical and transparent governance of AI, after all, depend upon appropriate oversight and enforcement for their effectiveness. Although AIDA proposed the creation of an AI and Data Commissioner (Commissioner), this was never meant to be an independent regulator. Ultimately, AIDA placed most of the oversight obligations in the hands of the Minister of Industry – the same Minister responsible for supporting the growth of Canada’s AI sector. Critics considered this to be a conflict of interest. A series of proposed amendments to AIDA are meant to address these concerns by reworking the role of the Commissioner.

Section 33(1) of AIDA makes it clear that the AI and Data Commissioner will be a “senior official of the department over which the Minister presides”, and their appointment involves being designated by the Minister. This has not changed, although the amendments would delete from this provision language stating that the Commissioner’s role is “to assist the Minister in the administration and enforcement” of AIDA.

The proposed amendments elevate the Commissioner somewhat, giving them a series of powers and duties, to which the Minister can add through delegation (s. 33(3)). So, for example, it will be the newly empowered Commissioner (Commissioner 2.0) who receives reports from those managing a general-purpose or high impact system where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the use of the system has caused serious harm (s. 8.2(1)(e), s. 11(1)(g)). Commissioner 2.0 can also order someone managing or making available a general-purpose system to provide them with the accountability framework they are required to create under s. 12 (s. 13(1)) and can provide guidance or recommend corrections to that framework (s. 13(2)). Commissioner 2.0 can compel those making available or managing an AI system to provide the Commissioner with an assessment of whether the system is high impact, and in relation to which subclass of high impact systems set out in the schedule. Commissioner 2.0 can agree or disagree with the assessment, although if they disagree, their authority seems limited to informing the entity in writing with their reasons for disagreement.

More significant are Commissioner 2.0’s audit powers. Under the original version of AIDA, these were to be exercised by the Minister – the powers are now those of the Commissioner (s. 15(1)). Further, Commissioner 2.0 may order (previously this was framed as “require”) that the person either conduct an audit themselves or that the person engage the services of an independent auditor. The proposed amendments also empower the Commissioner to conduct an audit to determine if there is a possible contravention of AIDA. This strengthens the audit powers by ensuring that there is at least an option that is not at least somewhat under the control of the party being audited. The proposed amendments give Commissioner 2.0 additional powers necessary to conduct an audit and to carry out testing of an AI system (s. 15(2.1)). Where Commissioner 2.0 conducts an audit, they must provide the audited party with a copy of the report (s. 15(3.1)) and where the audit is conducted by the person responsible or someone retained by them, they must provide a copy to the Commissioner (s. 15(4)).

The Minister still retains some role with respect to audits. He or she may request that the Commissioner conduct an audit. In an attempt to preserve some independence of Commissioner 2.0, the Commissioner, when receiving such a request, may either carry out the audit or decline to do so on the basis that there are no reasonable grounds for an audit, so long as they provide the Minister with their reasons (s. 15.1(1)(b)). The Minister may also order a person to take actions to bring themselves into compliance with the law (s. 16) or to cease making available or terminate the operation of a system if the Minister considers compliance to be impossible (s. 16(b)) or has reasonable grounds to believe that the use of the system “gives rise to a risk of imminent and serious harm” (s. 17(1)).

As noted above, Commissioner 2.0 (a mere employee in the Minister’s department) will have order making powers under the amendments. This is something the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, an independent agent of Parliament, appointed by the Governor in Council, is hoping to get in Bill C-27. If so, it will be for the first time since the enactment of PIPEDA in 2000. Orders of Commissioner 2.0 or the Minister can become enforceable as orders of the Federal Court under s. 20.

Commissioner 2.0 is also empowered to share information with a list of federal or provincial government regulators where they have “reasonable grounds to believe that the information may be relevant to the administration or enforcement by the recipient of another Act of Parliament or of a provincial legislature.” (s. 26(1)). Reciprocally, under a new provision, federal regulators may also share information with the Commissioner (s. 26.1). Additionally, Commissioner 2.0 may “enter into arrangements” with different federal regulators and/or the Ministers of Health and Transport in order to assist those actors with the “exercise of their powers or the performance of their functions and duties” in relation to AI (s. 33.1). These new provisions strengthen a more horizontal, multi-regulator approach to governing AI which is an improvement in the Bill, although this might eventually need to be supplemented by corresponding legislative amendments – and additional funding – to better enable the other commissioners to address AI-related issues that fit within their areas of competence.

The amendments also impose upon Commissioner 2.0 a new duty to report on the administration and enforcement of AIDA – such a report is to be “published on a publicly available website”. (s. 35.1) The annual reporting requirement is important as it will increase transparency regarding the oversight and enforcement of AIDA. For his or her part, the Minister is empowered to publish information, where it is in the public interest, regarding any contravention of AIDA or where the use of a system gives rise to a serious risk of imminent harm (ss. 27 and 28).

Interestingly, AIDA, which provides for the potential imposition of administrative monetary penalties for contraventions of the Act does not indicate who is responsible for setting and imposing these penalties. Section 29(1)(g) makes it clear that “the persons or classes of persons who may exercise any power, or perform any duty or function, in relation to the [AMP] scheme” is left to be articulated in regulations.

The AIDA also makes it an offence under s. 30 for anyone to obstruct or provide false or misleading information to “the Minister, anyone acting on behalf of the Minister or an independent auditor in the exercise of their powers or performance of their duties or functions under this Part.” This remains unchanged from the original version of AIDA. Presumably, since Commissioner 2.0 would exercise a great many of the oversight functions, this is meant to apply to the obstruction or misleading of the Commissioner – but it will only do so if the Commissioner is characterized as someone “acting on behalf of the Minister”. This is not language of independence, but then there are other features of AIDA that also counter any view that even Commissioner 2.0 is truly independent (and I mean others besides the fact that they are an employee under the authority of the Minister and handpicked by the Minister). Most notable of these is that should the Commissioner become incapacitated or absent, or should they simply never be designated by the Minister, it is the Minister who will exercise their powers and duties (s. 33(4)).

In sum, then, the proposed amendments to AIDA attempt to give some separation between the Minister and Commissioner 2.0 in terms of oversight and enforcement. At the end of the day, however, Commissioner 2.0 is still the Minister’s hand-picked subordinate. Commissioner 2.0 does not serve for a specified term and has no security of tenure. In their absence, the Minister exercises their powers. It falls far short of independence.

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