Privacy commissioner proposes policy aimed at protecting online reputations

Daniel Therrien, the privacy commissioner of Canada, is proposing a privacy law amendment that would allow people to ask that inaccurate, incomplete, or outdated information about them appearing in search engines to be removed or adjusted, according to a press release.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) released a draft of the policy last month, which includes a section on the “special case of youth,” wherein past posts or photos can be removed if they’re embarrassing, outdated, or may harm their reputation when they’re older.

In order to get these posts removed, individuals must make a a formal request to site owners or search engines. Each request will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

If matters can’t be resolved between the parties involved, individuals can make a formal complaint with the OPC.

This proposed policy arose from a consultation launched in January 2016, where the OPC gained input on new ways to protect an individual’s reputation and privacy.

“There is little more precious than our reputation,” Therrien said in the press release.

“Ultimately, the objective is to create an environment where people can use the Internet to explore and develop without fear their digital traces will lead to unfair treatment,” he said.

Therrien added that protecting one’s reputation is increasingly difficult in the digital age, where so much about us is systematically indexed, accessed and shared with just a few keystrokes.”

Alejandro Becerra, a second-year electrical engineering student at the University of Ottawa, said he would like to see this policy implemented.

“My biggest worry is that once you get into the job market, before an employer even reaches you, they do an internet search of your name, and I can’t be sure of what’s gonna pop up,” he said.

The proposal offers two methods of removing the information—de-indexing it, or amending or taking it down.

According to the document, de-indexing is “the process by which a particular webpage, image, or other online resource is removed from the results returned by a search engine when an individual’s name is entered as the search term.”

However, de-indexing does not mean the information is removed from the internet and does not prevent the information from being found through other search terms.

Source amendment or takedown on the other hand, allows modification or removal of the information at the source.

However, two Carleton University professors have opposing views on the proposed policy.

David Matheson, a philosophy professor at Carleton, said he agrees with what the OPC is putting forward.

He recently wrote a paper on a similar policy that is currently in place in Europe, which is informally knows as “the right to be forgotten.”

“I’d be in support of the law in the Canadian context,” he said, “I think that this law, in the European context, is just and well placed.”

On the other hand, Anil Somayaji, a computer science professor at Carleton, disagreed.

“I’m not saying that children shouldn’t have some rights, but I’d want it to be because there was something particularly damaging, like the equivalent of a tort,” he said.

A tort is a an unfair action which causes physical, psychological or emotional distress to an individual, irrespective of the intention of the offender.

Somayaji said if someone has a blog and you wanted them to remove content about you, you’d have to tell them directly to remove it, which he calls problematic from an ethical point of view.

“It’s strict censorship,” he said. “It’s the literal equivalent to book burning. You’re talking about destroying information that was previously accessible.”

But, Salma Ahmed-Osman, a first-year law student at Carleton, who said she posted “very embarrassing photos and videos” when she was younger because she didn’t really know how social media worked, would like to see the proposal implemented.

“I use social media very wisely now, so [this proposal] wouldn’t change the way I use it, but it would change how the younger generation would,” she said.

Photo by Meagan Casalino