Removing Unlawful Content Isn’t a Right to be Forgotten – It’s Justice

A federal court decision released 30 January 2017 has (re)ignited discussion of the “right to be forgotten” (RTBF) in Canada. 

The case revolved around the behaviour of (the URL does not appear to be currently available, but it is noteworthy that their Facebook page is still online), a website that republishes Canadian court and tribunal decisions. 

The publication of these decisions is not, itself, inherently problematic.  Indeed, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) has previously found that an  organization (unnamed in the finding, but presumably CanLii or a similar site) had collected, used and disclosed court decisions for appropriate purposes pursuant to subsection 5(3) of PIPEDA.  The Commissioner determined that the company's purpose in republishing was to support the open courts principle, by making court and tribunal decisions more readily available to Canadian legal professionals and academics. Further, that the company's subscription-based research tools and services did not undermine the balance between privacy and the open courts principle that had been struck by Canadian courts, nor was the operation of those tools inconsistent with OPC’s guidance on the issue.  It is important to note that this finding relied heavily on the decision by the organization NOT to allow search engines to index decisions within its database or otherwise making them available to non-subscribers. 

In its finding, the OPC references another website – – about which they had received multiple well-founded complaints.  Regarding, which did allow search engines to index decisions as well as hosting commercial advertising and charging a fee for removal of personal information, the Commissioner found that:

  1. He did have jurisdiction over the (Romanian-based) site, given its real and substantial connection to Canada;
  2. the site was not collecting, using and disclosing the information for exclusively journalistic purposes and thus was not exempt from PIPEDA’s requirements.
  3. that Globe24h’s purpose of making available Canadian court and tribunal decisions through search engines – which allows the sensitive personal information of individuals to be found by happenstance or by anyone, anytime for any purpose –  was NOT one that a reasonable person would consider to be appropriate in the circumstances; and
  4. that although the information was publicly available, the site’s use was not consistent with the open courts principle for which it was originally made available, and thus PIPEDA’s requirement for knowledge and consent did apply to

Accordingly, he found the complaints well-founded.

From there, the complaint proceeded to Federal Court, with the Privacy Commissioner appearing as a party to the application.

The Federal Court concurred with the Privacy Commissioner that: PIPEDA did apply to; that the site was engaged in commercial activity; and that it’s purposes were not exclusively journalistic.  On reviewing its collection, use and disclosure of the information, the Court determined that the exclusion for publicly available information did not apply, and that Globe24h had contravened PIPEDA. 

Where it gets interesting is in the remedies granted by the Court.  Strongly influenced by the Privacy Commissioner’s submission, the Court:

  1. issued an order requiring to correct its practices to comply with sections 5 to 10 of PIPEDA;
  2. relied upon s.16 of PIPEDA, which authorizes the Court grant remedies to address systemic non-compliance to issue a declaration that had contravened PIPEDA; and
  3. awarded damages in the amount of $5000 and costs in the amount of $300.

The reason this is interesting is the explicit recognition by the Court that:

A declaration that the respondent has contravened PIPEDA, combined with a corrective order, would allow the applicant and other complainants to submit a request to Google or other search engines to remove links to decisions on from their search results. Google is the principal search engine involved and its policy allows users to submit this request where a court has declared the content of the website to be unlawful. Notably, Google’s policy on legal notices states that completing and submitting the Google form online does not guarantee that any action will be taken on the request. Nonetheless, it remains an avenue open to the applicant and others similarly affected. The OPCC contends that this may be the most practical and effective way of mitigating the harm caused to individuals since the respondent is located in Romania with no known assets. [para 88]

It is this line of argument that has fed response to the decision.  The argument is that, by explicitly linking its declaration and corrective order with the ability of claimants to request that search engine’s remove the content at issue from their results, the decision has created a de facto RTBF in Canada. 

With all due respect, I disagree.  A policy on removing content that a court has declared to be unlawful is not equivalent to a “right to be forgotten.”  RTBF, as originally set out, recognized that under certain conditions (i.e., where specific information is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive), individuals have the right to ask search engines to remove links to personal information about them.  In contrast, the issue here is not that the information is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” – rather, it is that the information has been declared UNLAWFUL. 

The RTBF provision of the General Data Protection Regulation – Article 17 – sets out circumstances in which a request for erasure would not be honoured because there are principles at issue that transcend RTBF and justify keeping the data online – legal requirements, freedom of expression, interests of public health, and the necessity of processing the data for historical, statistical and scientific purposes.

We are not talking here about an overarching right to control dissemination of these publicly available court records.  The importance of the open court principle was explicitly addressed by both the OPC and the Federal Court, and weighted in making their determinations.  In so doing, the appropriate principled flexibility has been exercised – the very principled flexibility that is implicit in Article 17. 

I do not dispute that a policy conversation about RTBF needs to take place, nor that explicitly setting out parameters and principles would be of assistance going forward.  Perhaps the pending Supreme Court of Canada decision in Google v Equustek Solutions will provide that guidance. 

Regardless, the decision in does not create RTBF– rather, it exercises its power under PIPEDA to craft appropriate remedies to facilitate justice.


How About We Stop Worrying About the Avenue and Instead Focus on Ensuring Relevant Records are Linked?

Openness of information, especially when it comes to court records, is an increasingly difficult policy issue.  We have always struggled to balance the protection of personal information against the need for public information and for justice (and the courts that dispense it) to be transparent.  Increasingly dispersed and networked information makes this all the more difficult. 

In 1991’s Vickery v. Nova Scotia Supreme Court (Prothonotary) Justice Cory (writing in dissent, but in agreement with the Court on these statements)  positioned the issue as being inherently about the tension between the privacy rights of an acquitted individual versus the importance of court information and recordsbeing open.

…two principles of fundamental importance to our democratic society which must be weighed in the balance in this case.  The first is the right to privacy which inheres in the basic dignity of the individual.  This right is of intrinsic importance to the fulfilment of each person, both individually and as a member of society.  Without privacy it is difficult for an individual to possess and retain a sense of self-worth or to maintain an independence of spirit and thought.
The second principle is that courts must, in every phase and facet of their processes, be open to all to ensure that so far as is humanly possible, justice is done and seen by all to be done.  If court proceedings, and particularly the criminal process, are to be accepted, they must be completely open so as to enable members of the public to assess both the procedure followed and the final result obtained.  Without public acceptance, the criminal law is itself at risk.

Historically the necessary balance has been arrived at less by policy negotiation than by physical and geographical limitations.  When one must physically attend the court house to search for and collect information from various sources, the time, expense and effort necessary functions as its own form of protection.  As Elizabeth Judge has noted, however, “with the internet, the time and resource obstacles for accessing information were dramatically lowered. Information in electronic court records made available over the Internet could be easily searched and there could be 24-hour access online, but with those gains in efficiency comes a loss of privacy.”

At least arguably, part of what we have been watching play out with the Right to be Forgotten is a new variation of these tensions.  Access to these forms of information is increasingly easily and generally available – all it requires is a search engine and a name.  In return, news stories, blog posts, social media discussions and references to legal cases spill across the screen.  With RTBF and similar suggestions,  we seek to limit this information cascade to that which is relevant and recent. 

This week saw a different strategy employed.  As part of the sentences for David and Collet Stephan – whose infant son died of meningitis due to their failure to access medical care for him when he fell ill – the Alberta court required that notice of the sentence be posted on Prayers for Ezekiel and any other social media sites maintained by and dealing with the subject of their family.  (NOTE:  As of 6 July 2016, this order has not been complied with).

Contrary to some, I do not believe that the requirement to post is akin to a sandwich board, nor that this is about shaming.  Rather, it seems to me that in an increasingly complex information spectrum, insisting that sentence be clearly and verifiably linked to information about the issue.  Instead, I agree that

… it is a clear sign that the courts are starting to respond to the increasing power of social media, and to the ways that criminals can attract supporters and publicity that undermines faith in the legal system. It also points to the difficulties in upholding respect for the courts in an era when audiences are so fragmented that the facts of a case can be ignored because they were reported in a newspaper rather than on a Facebook post.

There has been (and continues to be) a chorus of complaints about RTBF and its supposed potential to frustrate (even censor) the right to KNOW.  Strangely, that same chorus does not seem to be raising their voices in celebration of this decision.  And yet…. doesn’t requiring that conviction and sentence be attached to “news” of the original issue address many of the concerns raised by anti-RTBF forces? 


The Missing (and Missed) Context in R v Elliot

The decision in Internet harassment case R v. Elliot is a great example of the importance of context in shaping and understanding online interactions – and of what can happen when technology is conflated with context.


The circumstances here are complex, originating in discussions on a hashtagged local political group.  Ms. Guthrie and Mr. Elliot had previously met in person to discuss the possibility of his designing a poster for an event, though ultimately he was not asked to perform the task.  The conflict between Elliot and Guthrie appears to have begun after a web-based game was released—the object of which was to punch an image of “Feminist Frequency” scholar Anita Sarkeesian until bruised and bloody. They differed on the controversial decision to expose the identity of the anonymous game designer, exposing him to the opprobrium of both his local community and online feminist community at large.  From there, relations between Elliott and many members of the feminist community became increasingly fractured and angry. 

To show criminal harassment in this case requires establishing:

  • ·        That Elliot engaged in conduct –  repeated communication via twitter
  • ·         That caused Ms. Guthrie and Ms. Reilly to feel harassed
  • ·         That he was aware of their harassment;
  • ·         The harassment caused them to fear for their safety; and
  • ·         That their fear was reasonable in the circumstances.

Breaking Down the Decision

In his long and carefully reasoned decision, Justice Knazan begins with an examination of the technological context in which it is rooted – the twitter platform.  The background on twitter does not include technical specs – rather, it is derived from those involved in the case.  A glossary of twitter terms is provided.  Next, the different means of communication on the platform are elucidated – a direct message, a public message, replying to a message, mentioning someone in a message, retweeting, etc.  – along with the (potential) audience for each. 

First, the difficulty of examining the communication in its entirety was discussed.  The communications took place over an extended period of time, and complainants did not have recollection of the exact text of each individual one.  The police detective, along with software and the twitter platform, was able to assemble a collection of tweets, but there were issues.   

The Court did contemplate the importance of context, with the Judge writing that

I cannot fully understand all the circumstances within the meaning of s. 264 with respect to the proven tweets without seeing the tweets that precede them on the printed-out page. When other tweets appear on the page of the printed tweets, which are in the end the exact product of the Sysomos search, they are then as much a part of the evidence as the original tweets. Their provenance and date are proven just as much as the main tweet that led to the result that Det. Bangild obtained. There is no difference between them and the searched-for tweets, even if no witness has confirmed that they were sent.

Using this expansive view, the court determines that conduct on twitter can constitute communication for the purposes of this case.

Ms. Guthrie

Turning to the charges, the court first examines Mr. Elliot’s interactions with Ms. Guthrie in order to determine whether the requirements of the charge are met.

  • Yes, there was repeated communication
  • Yes, the repeated communication made her feel harassed
  • No, Mr. Elliot did not know that she was harassed BUT he was reckless in that he was aware of a risk of harassment yet continued his behaviour despite that; and
  • Ms. Guthrie was fearful

It is on the issue of whether that fear was reasonable in all the circumstances where Ms. Guthrie’s claim fails.  Despite prefacing his analysis with the recognition that:

That Ms. Guthrie is a woman is relevant. Crown counsel submits that “a reasonable person, especially, a woman, would find Mr. Elliott’s tweets and behaviour concerning and scary.” Women are vulnerable to violence and harassment by men, and Ms. Guthrie advocates for understanding and change. I must judge the reasonableness of Ms. Guthrie’s fear in all the circumstances and on the evidence

nevertheless, the circumstances are misapplied.  Looking at the range of tweets and conversation trails, Ms. Guthrie’s active decision to “block” Mr. Elliott on twitter, her request to him to stop contacting her, and his continued participation in group conversation in which she was involved, the judge suggests that while under normal circumstances this would be sufficient to establish reasonableness, in this case it is not.  Instead, focussing on the technological context and reviewing the history between the Elliot and Guthrie, he (mis)interprets her anger and frustration about Elliot’s participation on certain hashtags and from this concludes that Ms. Guthrie’s belief that Elliot's activities indicated an obsession with her was unreasonable in the circumstances.   

With no tweets that explicitly show sexual or violence threats, no tweets that the judge interprets as demonstrating the irrationality perceived by Ms. Guthrie, the charge of criminal harassment of Ms. Guthrie fails, because the fear she experienced was not considered reasonable in all the circumstances.

Ms. Reilly

Mr. Elliott communicated directly with Ms. Reilly. He identified her explicitly when publicly complaining about her request that he stop following her feed, called her “fucking nuts”, and told her that “This is Twitter” and that her request that he stop replying to her posts offended his “sensibilities”. He replied to her retweets by asking how she would feel if he was so delusional as to ask her not to retweet him. He also communicated with Ms. Reilly indirectly during the period, by mentioning her in other tweets.

In this situation, the court found that:

  • Yes, there was repeated communication
  • Yes, the repeated communication made her feel harassed; and
  • Yes, Mr. Elliot did know that she was harassed

Here, it was the requirement that Ms. Reilly be fearful as a result of the harassment that derailed the case. 

A key feature in Ms. Reilly’s interactions with Mr. Elliott was fear for her physical safety – at one point he made reference to the public location where she and others were meeting.  This led her to fear that he was at that location, and she subsequently checked the room to ensure he was not.  This led to an ongoing concern about his ability to monitor meetings by the group and about physical safety in those instances.  Ms. Reilly had even filed a complaint with Twitter in September 2012, stating among other things that “…I am part of a ladies group that meets Mondays, and he is ‘tweet eavesdropping/stalking’ this group, which also leads many of us to be concerned for our safety in real life, as this has now begun to feel like a real life threat.”

The judge appears to have been put-off by her behaviour on twitter – Justice Knazan notes that “Ms. Reilly’s retweeting of forceful, insulting, unconfirmed and ultimately inaccurate attacks [against Elliot] suggesting pedophilia – combined with her tentative, hypothetical concerns that he could possibly move from online to offline harassment, and her knowledge that he never came to the Cadillac Lounge and never again referred to her whereabouts – raises doubt in my mind to whether she was afraid of Mr. Elliott.”

It was this doubt, ultimately, that compromised this charge – the judge was not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the communications resulted in Ms. Reilly’s fearing for her safety. 

The Overlooked Context

Now let’s look at the larger issues of context. 

Early in the decision, Justice Knazan quotes from the McLaughlin/L’Heureux-Dube minority concurring judgement in R. v. R.D.S.:

41     It is axiomatic that all cases litigated before judges are, to a greater or lesser degree, complex. There is more to a case than who did what to whom, and the questions of fact and law to be determined in any given case do not arise in a vacuum. Rather, they are the consequence of numerous factors, influenced by the innumerable forces which impact on them in a particular context. Judges, acting as finders of fact, must inquire into those forces. In short, they must be aware of the context in which the alleged crime occurred.

42     Judicial inquiry into the factual, social and psychological context within which litigation arises is not unusual. Rather, a consci, con­text­ual inquiry has become an accepted step towards judicial impartiality. In that regard, Professor Jennifer Nedelsky's "Embodied Diversity and the Challenges to Law" (1997), 42 McGill L.J. 91, at p. 107, offers the following comment:

What makes it possible for us to genuinely judge, to move beyond our private idiosyncracies and preferences, is our capacity to achieve an "enlarge­ment of mind". We do this by taking different perspectives into account. This is the path out of the blindness of our subjective private con­ditions. The more views we are able to take into account, the less likely we are to be locked into one perspective .... It is the capacity for "enlarge­ment of mind" that makes autonomous, impartial judgment possible.

 So what is this larger context?

Both Ms. Guthrie and Ms. Reilly were active in online and offline feminist communities.  Mr. Elliot too was politically active – remember that the original connection here was his volunteering to assist in designing something for an event in which the women were involved. 

These events are the context in which they live and work.  And they are the context within which the experiences and fears of Ms. Guthrie and Ms. Reilly must be understood. 

There is no indication in the decision that these issues were put forward by the Crown.  Perhaps they were.  Either way, they certainly do not seem to have been factored into “all the circumstances” within which these charges are being analyzed and assessed. 

The focus on the twitter platform and desire to properly parse and understand the technological context within which these charges arose is admirable.  But the technological is not and is never the only context within which interactions take place.  By ignoring the broader social and political context, this decision misses an important opportunity to address a growing problem—how to balance freedom of speech with women’s right to participate fully both onlione and offline without fear






THE REPUTATION FILES: Pseudonymity, Exposure, and Impact(s)

The tale of Belle de Jour has taken a new turn, with an ex-boyfriend turning to the courts and media with his claims that his association with the sex worker/academic/blogger has destroyed his career and that her claims of having been a sex worker are fabricated.

The site Diary of a London Call Girl debuted in 2003, purporting to be a record of the experiences of a young woman as she began and then continued to work for an escort agency.  The author identified herself as Belle du Jour, and as the site become more popular and the franchise grew to include published books and a spin-off television series there was much public speculation as to Belle’s “real” identity. 

That speculation ended in November 2009, when Dr. Brooke Magnanti outed herself as Belle de Jour in the Sunday Times.  Dr. Magnanti is a research scientist at Bristol University in the UK, and has stated that she was employed by an escort agency for 14 months while completing her Ph.D. thesis. 

Now she is being sued in a Scottish court by Owen Morris with whom she had a 6 year relationship.  Writing as Belle du Jour, she bestowed upon Mr. Morris the pseudonym “The Boy” – he claims that when she revealed herself publicly, his identity too was exposed.   Accordingly Mr. Morris is suing her for damages and loss of earnings on the basis that she cost him his job and RAF career, breached his privacy, and defamed him. 

She says: Dr. Magnanti

The use of the pseudonym `Belle de Jour` allowed Dr. Magnanti to journal her experiences and later to commodify the popularity of her site while continuing separately to build her own academic career.  Clearly, the use of a pseudonym to keep these “selves” separate not only allowed Dr. Magnanti to develop professionally, but to build strong parallel reputations.  It is worth noting that both the university and her publisher have been publicly supportive of her. Bristol University has stated that Dr. Magnanti’s past is irrelevant to her university position, and her publisher has lauded her for the courage it had taken to come forward. 


An entry on her blog the day of the public revelation spoke about the importance of reconciling the different aspects of her personality, and denied that her offline self was any more “real” than her pseudonymous online self.  Both in her decision to unmask herself and in her subsequent comments, Dr. Magnanti demonstrates many key aspects of the interrelationship between privacy, identity and anonymity.  Choosing to control information about herself via the use of a pseudonym allowed her the privacy and freedom to develop both selves, both reputations, without confusion or dissonance emerging between them. 

He Says: Owen Morris

In contrast with Dr. Magnanti’s focus on authenticity, Mr. Morris’s lawsuit strikes a dissonant chord.  While alleging defamation and breach of his privacy, he is also challenging her backstory, claiming that the blog was begun before her time in London and that in fact the clients and characters she detailed were fabrications built upon her sex life with him. 

This dichotomy is interesting –his claims rest on the idea that being associated with someone of her reputation (as sex worker, not as academic) has damaged him and his reputation professionally and personally.  Simultaneously, however, he seeks to undermine the validity of that reputation at all, refusing the notion that he had ever been involved with a sex worker to begin with.


Dr. Magnanti, in a blog post dated 11 August 2013, responds to Mr. Morris’s claims in the media and in court.  She lists significant documentary evidence that she is prepared to produce, including entries from his own journal where he acknowledges he knows that she was a sex worker, tax records showing earnings and appropriate taxes paid upon those earnings, diaries of her engagements during those years and more. 

At the close of her entry, Dr. Magnanti states that:

It matters because this is a concerted and direct attack on my work as a writer. Is it libel to say someone wasn't a sex worker? Well, it's libel to say someone was lying. When I was anonymous, being real was my main - my only - advantage. Mr. Morris and the Mail on Sunday have made some frankly nonsense claims, and I will be going to town on this.

Because I know people do not trust the word of a sex worker, that is why I saved everything.

Reputation Wars

What then is the real issue here? Whose reputation is at risk and why?

Sex work is not illegal per se in the UK.  Accordingly, the question of whether or not Dr. Magnanti’s experiences are real or fictionalized seems like a red herring. 

Was Mr. Morris damaged by Dr. Magnanti’s activities as a sex worker?  Was he damaged by her revelation of her “real” identity in 2009?  Have either of these in fact led to him suffering personal and professional harm that should be redressed?

Or is it Mr. Morris’s pride that has been damaged?  His insistence that he never knowingly slept with a sex worker seems to speak to a particular notion of masculinity that might be seen as “diminished” by such an association. 

This case revolves around many complexities of identity and reputation.

The case is in the Scottish courts and to my knowledge no decision has yet been reached.  It will be interesting to see what approach is taken in assessing whether Mr. Morris has indeed suffered tortious injuries, and in articulating what those injuries might in fact be. 

PROTECTING CONSUMER PRIVACY: Corporate Intrusions Increasingly Being Taken Seriously

On 29 October 2013, the Federal Court of Canada released its decision in Chitrakar v Bell TV. In a victory for privacy rights under PIPEDA legislation the court decided against Bell TV and awarded damages of $21,000 after the company obtained a customer’s credit bureau report without his knowledge or consent. 


The award marks a significant advance for consumer privacy rights by taking the violation of those rights more seriously and awarding exemplary damages – the first time this has been done under PIPEDA and a clear signal from the court that organizations are expected to conform to the spirit as well as the letter of their privacy responsibilities. 

The case revolves around the following sequence of events: Bell ran a credit bureau report on new customer Mr. Rabi Chitrakar, 1 December 2010, when he ordered satellite television service.  When the equipment was delivered on 31 December 2010, Mr. Chitrakar signed what he understood to be a Proof of Delivery form.  Bell later inserted his signature on their standard TB Rental Agreement which includes a clause consenting to Bell doing a credit check.  After Mr. Chitrakar discovered that a credit check had been done, he filed a complaint with Bell in March 2011 and continued to seek an explanation from Bell, who gave him what the court characterizes as “the royal runaround”.  In finding for Mr. Chitrakar the Federal Court assessed the award at $10,000, with another $10,000 in exemplary damages due to Bell’s conduct and $1,000 for costs. 

PIPEDA, the Personal Information Privacy and Electronic Documents Act, allows a complainant to proceed to the Federal Court of Canada after the Privacy Commissioner’s investigation and report.  When this is done, the court has the power to order an organization to correct practices that do not comply with the law, and to publish notices of the changes it expects to make. It can also award compensation for damages suffered.  This award was significantly higher than previous awards under PIPEDA. 

The first award of damages under s. 16 of PIPEDA took place in 2010, in Nammo, a case dealing with erroneous information provided on a credit check.  Despite describing the provision of false credit information as “intrusive, embarrassing and humiliating as a brief and respectful strip search” only $5000 was awarded. 

Clarifying “proof of harm”

In making its determination in Nammo, the Court referred to the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Vancouver (City) v Ward, where damages were awarded despite there being no maliciousness, no intention to harm, and no harm shown.  The decision to make an award was based on reasoning that awards of damages serve multiple persons, including compensation, vindication and deterrence and accordingly the recognition that even where no harm need be compensated for, damages could still be warranted where the aims of vindication and/or deterrence were met. 

In the Chitrakar case the damage award was not based on proof of harm.  Rather, the court writes:

[t]he fixing of damages for privacy rights’ violations is a difficult matter absent evidence of direct loss.  However, there is no reason to require that the violation be egregious before damages will be awarded.  To do so would undermine the legislative intent of paragraph 16(c) which provides that damages be awarded for privacy violations including but not limited to damages for humiliation.

I’ve written before about the US requirement for proof of harm in such cases, juxtaposing it against the formula set out in the Ontario Court of Appeal’s Jones v Tsige decision (an important decision because it established a common law tort of privacy in Ontario) and arguing that the breach of privacy is in itself the harm, and that the meaning and purpose of damages being available for privacy breaches are compromised when proof of (additional) harm is required.

The Chitrakar case underscores the emerging recognition that a privacy violation is in itself harmful and deserving of redress, this time articulated by the Federal Court of Canada in a decision under PIPEDA. This is further evidence of an increased awareness that privacy is an important part of the right of dignity and autonomy and that redress for violations is justified once the infringement has established, regardless of whether any further harm has ensued.

This decision is good news—for advocates of privacy rights, for scholars of the interpretation and application of privacy law, and for ordinary consumers trying to protect their personal privacy and dignity.

**thanks to David T.S. Fraser for finding the decision and putting it on Google Docs.


the violation IS the harm!

A class action suit filed against Google, Vibrant Media and the Media Innovation Group over tracking cookies and targeted ads was dismissed in a Delaware court in October 2013.  While accepting and agreeing that the companies in question had collected user personal information by circumventing browser settings and then sold that information to ad companies, the Judge felt that the plaintiffs had not shown that they had suffered harm due to these practices, and thus the action could not be sustained.

This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the first time that the harm requirement has prevented individuals from holding to account those who invade their privacy.  Claims for harm, so-called speculative harm and for emotional distress as a result of the injury have all been attempted and dismissed.

In Canada, there is no requirement that injury be established in order to bring forward a claim.  Nevertheless, the question of harm necessarily arises at the damages stage.  In the germinal case of Jones v Tsige this issue is discussed, with the Judge recognizing the where no pecuniary loss has been suffered, there are still nominal or moral damages available, intended as at least a symbolic recognition that a wrong has been suffered.  After surveying common law and statutory prescriptions for such situations, the court finally arrives [at paras 87 and 88] at the following formula for dealing with intrusions on seclusion:

In my view, damages for intrusion upon seclusion in cases where the plaintiff has suffered no pecuniary loss should be modest but sufficient to mark the wrong that has been done. I would fix the range at up to $20,000. The factors identified in the Manitoba Privacy Act, which, for convenience, I summarize again here, have also emerged from the decided cases and provide a useful guide to assist in determining where in the range the case falls: 

1.   the nature, incidence and occasion of the defendant’s wrongful act;

2.   the effect of the wrong on the plaintiff’s health, welfare, social, business or financial position;

3.   any relationship, whether domestic or otherwise, between the parties;

4.   any distress, annoyance or embarrassment suffered by the plaintiff arising from the wrong; and

5.   the conduct of the parties, both before and after the wrong, including any apology or offer of amends made by the defendant.

I would neither exclude nor encourage awards of aggravated and punitive damages. I would not exclude such awards as there are bound to be exceptional cases calling for exceptional remedies. However, I would not encourage such awards as, in my view, predictability and consistency are paramount values in an area where symbolic or moral damages are awarded and absent truly exceptional circumstances, plaintiffs should be held to the range I have identified.

California has taken a different approach to the issue.  On 26 September 2013, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen moved forward on a ballot initiative that would amend the California Constitution to recognize a right of privacy in personal information and an attendant presumption of harm when that right is breached.  If the proposal garners 807,615 qualifying signatures by Feb. 24, 2014, the proposition will be included on the November 2014 ballot. 

Regardless of HOW the issue is addressed, it is clear that something must be done.  Both personal privacy and a right of remedy to the courts for redress of violations of that privacy are inherently compromised if they are only actionable when demonstrable pecuniary harm has been suffered. 

Privacy settings and the law: making user preferences meaningful

The scope and meaning of privacy settings on Facebook and other social media are still being negotiated. Some recent developments and new case law are helping to clarify when and where “private” means “protected.”

“Kids today”

A May 2013 Pew Internet survey of teens, social media and privacy indicates that the prevailing wisdom that “kids don’t care about privacy” is wrong.  Indeed, it showed 85% of teens aged 12-17 using privacy settings to some extent, with 60% setting their profile to private and another 25% having a partially private profile. A 2010 study on Facebook users and privacy indicates that adults and teens show equal awareness of privacy controls and that adults are even more likely to use privacy tools.  Social media services are providing tools to protect privacy and users are proactively utilizing those tools.

Unfortunately, those privacy settings aren’t always sufficient to protect personal information:

·         Degree of difficulty: for example, within Facebook, (as I write this) the default setting is “public”, and though granular controls are provided, some find those controls so confusing that information winds up being de facto public. 

·         Also, though nominally taking place within the Facebook environment, information that is shared with third party apps moves outside the control of Facebook. Note, this is a rapidly evolving situation—Facebook frequently updates privacy tools in an effort to balance the interests of users, advertisers, and its business model.


“Private” means private: Even more concerning has been the failure of courts to respect privacy settings.  In cases where no privacy settings have been applied, courts have admitted personal information gleaned from Facebook as evidence. For example, in a 2010 Canadian case, [Shonn's Makeovers & Spa v. M.N.R., 2010 TCC 542 ] the court considered an individual’s profile information on Facebook (information which is de facto public) as a decisive factor in ruling the plaintiff was a contractor rather than employee. 

Profiles & privacy: recent court decisions

We’ve seen an unsettling trend of courts admitting information gathered online—even when an individual user has applied privacy settings—categorizing such information as inherently public in spite of their proactive efforts to protect information. 

·         The Ontario Superior Court, for instance, determined in Frangione v. Vandongen et al (2010) ONSC 2823:  (1) that since it is accepted that a person’s Facebook profile may well contain information that is relevant to a proceeding; therefore (2) even when dealing with a profile that has been limited using privacy tools, it is still appropriate for the court to extrapolate from the nature of the social media service that relevant information may be present.    

·         Similarly, in British Columbia the court concluded in Fric v. Gershmann (2012) BCSC 614 that information from a private Facebook profile should be produced.  This decision was grounded in three conclusions:  (1) that the existence of a public profile implied the existence of a private profile that could contain relevant information; (2) that since the plaintiff was relying on photographs of her prior to the accident it was only fair that the defendant have access to photographs after the accident; and (3) that the fact that the profile was limited to friends was somewhat irrelevant given that she had over 350 “friends”, thus suggesting publicness. 

Canadian courts have tended to allow information from social media profiles to be admitted as relevant and available, regardless of whether privacy settings have been used or not.   

Given this, it is particularly significant that in August 2013 the New Jersey District Court recently found [Ehling v Monmouth-Ocean Hospital Service Corp et al Civ No. 2:11-cv-03305] non-public Facebook wall posts are protected under the Federal Stored Communications Act.  There, Ms. Ehling had applied privacy settings to restrict her information to “friends only” and a “friend” took screenshots of her content and shared it with another.  The protection is being extended to the information despite the fact that the third party did not access the information via Facebook itself. 

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As the law evolves to meet the challenges of new online risks and rewards, a balance needs to be found in providing meaningful respect for privacy and personal information. It is important for “users”—in other words, all of us—to be able to participate in social, cultural, and commercial exchanges online without the sacrificing the widely recognized right to privacy we have offline.


making regulation meaningful

On 26 August 2013, a San Francisco judge approved a $20 million settlement between Facebook and those of its users whose information had been used in Facebook’s “sponsored stories” advertising campaign without their consent.    You remember “sponsored stories” – the program where a user hitting the “like” button was equated to a commercial endorsement, with the risk that the user’s photo and personal information might even appear in an ad.

The suit was filed in April 2011, alleging that Facebook had not adequately informed its users of the program nor given them an opportunity to opt-out of the program.  Although Facebook admits no wrong-doing, the settlement includes not only the $20 million payout but changes to the language of Facebook’s Terms of Use, the creation of a means for users to review the use of their information in sponsored stories advertising and to control ongoing use of that information.  The settlement also provides parental supervision and the opportunity to opt-out entirely for non-adult users.  Education programs will also be developed, notifying users of these new provisions and powers.


Although $20 million sounds like a substantial amount of money, it pales in comparison to the approximately $73 million the court estimates that Facebook earned from those sponsored stories ads that used the information in question. 

It should also be noted that the $20 million will be split among the class action attorneys, privacy organizations, and affected users.  Estimates range from 614,000 to 125 million affected users, resulting in individual payouts of no more than $15.  If every affected user applied for the funds, it would amount to 2 cents/user.  In approving the settlement, the judge acknowledged that the individuals would receive only a nominal amount, but indicated that they had failed to prove that they were "harmed in any meaningful way".

Meaningful?  Facebook’s business plan is predicated on collecting and commodifying the personal information of its users.  It does so successfully.  And when, after paying the settlement, they have still made $50+ million by violating fair information principles, this settlement shows itself not as “punishment” but rather merely as the cost of doing business. 

Users need meaningful protections, and that means that violations of the Terms of Use, of the Privacy Policy, or of fair information principles need to be understood as invasive violations and inherently damaging.  As long as infringing on informational self-determination is considered not to constitute meaningful harm, companies will be able to do so with virtual impunity.