Protecting Personal Information in a 2.0 World

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With the rise of the Web and social media, protecting privacy has become a big challenge. Why? Because more confidential information of Web users is zipping through cyberspace faster and faster. On a legal level, this is making it tough to protect people’s privacy and personal information.

Protecting Personal Information on the Web: a Major Challenge!

Protecting confidentiality is difficult on the Internet. Just think about how much information is collected by advertisers for targeted advertising campaigns, or about the rise in identity theft.

A lot of websites ask users to share their personal information when they register or pay for something. Look at the policies of companies like Facebook and Google: these companies say that they collect and even share personal information gathered when users interact with their sites. But very few users read these policies.

How is information protected?

There are Quebec and Canadian laws on how information can be sent between organizations. Except in rare cases, organizations can only share personal information of people they deal with if those people agree to the sharing.

Organizations that don’t take steps to protect this information can be penalized. For example, users whose privacy has been violated can ask for money as compensation. But what about international organizations operating on the Web?

On the Web, which laws apply?

Even when it is collected in Quebec, information of users is often stored on or transferred to computer servers outside Quebec. So there is an international aspect to the issue that affects how people can protect their privacy.

Usually, laws only apply in the place they were made. For example, a California law only applies in California, and a Quebec law in Quebec.

But when a problem cuts across several places, a decision must be made about which laws apply. Think about the California computer servers of an American company with personal information about Quebec users.

In the policies and contracts Web users must agree to, many companies pick which laws and legal system will apply if there is a dispute. Often, people don’t even know they have agreed to this.

Also, many of these policies and contracts impose binding arbitration on users. Binding arbitration means that users give up the right to sue these companies in court. Disputes must be settled by going to an arbitrator (a neutral person who will decide the dispute).

In Quebec, it illegal to include this kind of arbitration rule in contacts between consumers and merchants. However, a Quebec court has decided that it is legal for social networking sites like Facebook to use this kind of arbitration rule because people don’t pay to use these sites.

Privacy Commissioner

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada hears complaints from citizens and investigates organizations suspected of breaking Canadian privacy laws. The Commissioner can also encourage Web companies like Google or Facebook to clarify or review their policies about protecting personal information. In Quebec, the Commission d’accès à l’information (access to information commission) is responsible for making sure Quebec laws protecting personal information are followed.

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