The Competition Bureau has confirmed that it launched an inquiry into the data collection practices of the federal Liberal, Conservative and New Democrat parties, in response to a complaint from the Centre for Digital Rights (CDR) an organization founded by businessman and tech advocate Jim Balsillie.
According to a letter provided to the media by the CDR, on Oct. 25, Deputy Commissioner of Competition Josephine Palumbo said that the Bureau was investigating an allegation that the major political parties had made deceptive statements to the public within their privacy policies. On Wednesday, the Bureau confirmed it was looking into the allegation and that it is currently gathering facts, but could not comment further on the case.
The Competition Bureau case is one of the five legal complaints that the CDR has made to various regulatory enforcement agencies in Canada, calling for action when it comes to political parties’ use of citizens’ private data. Similar complaints were sent to the federal Privacy Commissioner, the B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner, the Commissioner of Elections Canada and the Chief Enforcement and Compliance Officer of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
The four other agencies confirmed that they received complaints, but all said they cannot comment further on the matter.
The CDR was set up by Balsillie in 2018 in the wake of the Cambridge Analytical scandal, where data from social media platform Facebook was used to create psychological profiles of voters in an attempt to target ads during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and the U.K. Brexit referendum.
The CDR wants Canadian political parties to be governed by the same kinds of laws as other organizations in Canada, and the group is lobbying for changes to the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) to make it explicitly clear that political parties must obey the law.
Before the 2019 federal election, the Liberal government signalled that it intended to overhaul PIPEDA and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains published a “Digital Charter” document laying out 10 principles that would guide the changes. However, while the Digital Charter included talk about online misinformation and maintaining the integrity of elections, it didn’t specifically mention political parties.
When contacted by the Financial Post, the New Democratic Party said it operated within the regulations that apply to political parties and that it was “fully co-operating” with the Competition Bureau probe.
The Liberal Party of Canada did not respond to a request for comment, while the Conservative Party of Canada offered no immediate comment.
In an interview, Conservative innovation critic Michelle Rempel Garner said that she supports the idea of regulating how political parties use data, but that it shouldn’t happen piecemeal. She said she wants Canadians to have more control over how their data is used in all aspects of life.
“We really don’t have a good system writ large on this particular issue, and I think we need to start thinking outside the box on how to give Canaidans more tools to address that,” she said.
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, said he also supports regulating political parties on data, but he doesn’t like the approach of just folding it into PIPEDA.
“There needs to be a specific set of rules for political parties, because it’s about democratic engagement,” Angus said.
Did You See This CB Softwares?
37 SOFTWARE TOOLS... FOR $27!?Join Affiliate Bots Right Away
“It’s not the same as a commercial transaction, and there are already carve-outs you can get during campaigns to try to reach voters. That being said, how much data we are allowed to keep on voters I think is certainly something that needs to be looked at.”
Bill Hearn, a lawyer representing CDR, argues that, in the meantime, politicians should already be obeying those laws.
Conventional wisdom in Canada is that political parties aren’t covered by laws like PIPEDA or the Competition Act, because it isn’t spelled out in the text of the legislation, but Hearn argues that because they aren’t specifically exempted, they’re actually covered.
“Many people, smart people, take the view that political parties are somehow in this loophole, this gap, that somehow our laws have not kept pace with the digital world,” Hearn said.
“We’re actually saying the opposite. It’s a mistake, and a dangerous mistake and misconception to say there are no laws.”
In the Competition Bureau case, the CDR has assembled a group of six complainants to formally request an investigation, alleging that the privacy policies of the political parties are actively misleading because they give the impression that they are following the law.
“Nowhere in the privacy policies do they talk about the fact that they take the list of electors from Elections Canada, combine it with other information they may scrape from social media platforms, and create almost a digital voodoo doll … of voters,” Hearn said.
“They have a lot of information, a profile on you, and they score you for or against them, and they use that at least to communicate with you, and perhaps do other things.”
If political parties were covered by PIPEDA, they would be required to reveal all of the personal information they hold on an individual citizen, if somebody submitted a request. PIPEDA also requires organizations to disclose if they’ve suffered any sort of privacy breach.