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Equustek – Score one for rule of law and internet harm reduction

1 Jul

We all know that, on Wednesday, a 7-2 majority of the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed an order that required Google to de-index the websites of a company who was using the internet to sell the intellectual property of another company – an order against a non-party with global effect. The case – Google v Equustek –  is about rule of law in internet days and about doing what can be done about internet-based harm and not throwing hands up or letting romantic ideas about the internet and expression interfere.

After reading the case I tweeted these words and promised follow up. In keeping with my custom I’ll keep it short, in part by giving reference to an editorial by Neil Turkewitz in The Hill in which he applauds the Equustek decision. Mr. Turkewitz explains that the majority decision is a sensible response to arguments based on the “theory of cyber-libertarian ideology” that has been embraced by internet companies and freedom of expression advocates alike:

The decision in Equustek doesn’t answer all questions, and courts and policy makers globally will need to continue to closely examine the proper scope of national jurisdiction with respect to conduct that impacts multiple jurisdictions. Indeed, as I’ve written before, “I’m not unsympathetic to Google’s concerns. As a player with a global footprint, Google is legitimately concerned that it could be forced to comply with the sometimes-oppressive and often contradictory laws of countries around the world. But that doesn’t make it — or any other Internet company — unique. Global businesses have always had to comply with the rules of the territories in which they do business … There will be (and have been) cases in which taking action to comply with the laws of one country would place a company in violation of the laws of another. But principles of comity exist to address the problem of competing demands from sovereign governments.”

Mr. Turkewitz is saying that we cannot relax our laws for internet players like Google – especially given its role in an “internet of Backpage, of ISIS recruitment, of cyber-bullying, of phishing, of ransomware and revenge porn, of cyber-espionage, of trafficking in counterfeit and pirate content.” The majority of the Court did agree, with Justice Abella stating “The answer turns on classic interlocutory injunction jurisprudence” as if to say, “What’s the problem here?”

The only other point I’ll raise is about the dialogue between majority and minority about necessity and efficacy. The majority believed the order to be necessary and effective and the minority did not, neither side spending any time explaining the divergence. Here is the statement that encapsulates the minority view:

The most that can be said is that the Google Order might reduce the harm to Equustek which Fenlon J. found “Google is inadvertently facilitating” (para. 152). But it has not been shown that the Google Order is effective in doing so. As Google points out, Datalink’s websites can be found using other search engines, links from other sites, bookmarks, email, social media, printed material, word-of-mouth, or other indirect means. Datalink’s websites are open for business on the Internet whether Google searches list them or not. In our view, this lack of effectiveness suggests restraint in granting the Google Order.

Given our courts are charged with protecting rule of law and given the impossibility of totally controlling the internet, this statement is downright depressing. Very simply, we must have resort to harm reduction because it is all we will ever have. Without harm reduction, we have no rule of law.

Google Inc. v. Equustek Solutions Inc., 2017 SCC 34 (CanLII).

 

ONSC grants permanent injunction to address vitriolic internet campaign

19 Apr

On April 17, Justice Broad of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice issued a permanent injunction against a privacy and defamation defendant who he said engaged in a vitriolic campaign to discredit the plaintiff and her father – victims of a violent attack and hostage taking in which the plaintiff’s eight-year-old son was killed by the defendant’s brother-in-law.

A jury found in the plaintiffs’ favour and awarded damages in an amount that has not been published. Justice Broad issued a permanent injunction – an extraordinary remedy – because there was a real possibility that the plaintiffs would not receive any payment. He reasoned:

A possibility means a chance that something will happen, and a real possibility connotes a possibility that is not speculative or lacking in support. It is axiomatic that past behavior can act as a indicator of future behavior. In my view Richard Chmura’s failure to pay the outstanding costs awards, dating back up to more than four years ago, provides a sufficient basis for a finding that there is a real possibility that Julie Craven and John Craven will not receive any compensation, given that enforcement against Mr. Chmura of the damage award may not be possible. The test for the issuance of a permanent injunction preventing any continued or repeated publication of libelous statements about Julie Craven and John Craven has therefore been satisfied.

Craven v Chmura, 2016 ONSC 2406 (CanLII).

Ontario court issues significant and conservative decision on scope of privacy tort

3 Sep

On August 31st, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice issued a significant decision on the scope of the common law privacy tort – both declining to recognize a cause of action based on “public disclosure of private facts” and articulating how the protection granted by the recognized “intrusion” tort is circumscribed by the interest in free expression.

The case involved a claim against the CBC that the plaintiff – a researcher and professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland – framed both in defamation and breach of privacy. The claim arose out of an investigative journalism program that the CBC aired about the plaintiff’s ethics. The plaintiff alleged wrongs arising out of the words the CBC used in its broadcast and the CBC’s “investigative techniques.” These techniques included receiving and using a confidential report from an anonymous source.

Justice Mew first declined to recognize a claim based on the alleged public disclosure of private facts (or false light publicity). He reasoned that the law of defamation adequately addressed the wrong at issue in the case before him in a manner that carefully balanced the competing interests at stake. He said:

The CBC defendants submit, and I agree, that to expand the tort of invasion of privacy to include circumstances of public disclosure of embarrassing private facts about a plaintiff, would risk undermining the law of defamation as it has evolved and been pronounced by the Supreme Court. To do so would also be inconsistent with the common law’s incremental approach to change.

Justice Mew did, however, allow the jury to consider the whether the CBC committed an intrusion upon the plaintiff’s seclusion because, unlike a defamation claim, an intrusion claim “focuses on the act of intrusion, as opposed to dissemination or publication of information.” This finding left the jury with a difficult exercise in balancing competing rights. In instructing the jury, Justice Mew articulated a kind of immunity for receiving confidential information from whistle-blowers (without the use of unlawful means) and drew upon the defamation defences to circumscribe the intrusion tort as follows:

If you conclude that the actions of the CBC did not breach any laws, were not actuated by malice, or did not fall outside the scope of responsible communication, there would be no basis upon which you can find the CBC defendants liable for invasion of privacy. As to what constitutes malice and responsible communication, you should apply the same considerations that pertain to the defences of fair comment and responsible communication described by me earlier in relation to the defamation claim. If you have considered those questions (4 and 5) and have concluded that the defence of responsible communication should succeed, then you should answer “No” to question 8, since it would be inconsistent with the recognition of the place of responsible communication in the balancing exercise that I mentioned just now if a journalist whose actions benefit from the protection of that defence in a defamation claim were to remain exposed to a claim for invasion of privacy arising from her journalistic activities. Put another way, the prerequisite that there must be no lawful justification for the invasion of a person’s private affairs or concerns will be hard, if not impossible, to satisfy if there has been a finding that such an invasion occurred during the course of responsible journalistic activities.

Chandra v CBC, 2015 ONSC 5303 (CanLII).

Federal Court says open courts principle overrides Privacy Act

29 Aug

On June 5th the Federal Court of Appeal held that material filed in a Canadian Transportation Agency dispute resolution proceeding is accessible to the public notwithstanding the prohibition on disclosing personal information in the federal Privacy Act.

The CTA exercises, in part, a quasi-judicial dispute resolution function. In excercising this function the CTA passed rules requiring that materials filed in a proceeding be placed on the public record unless subject to a confidentiality order. The applicant argued that records filed and not subject to a confidentiality order are “publicly available” and therefore exempt from a prohibition on disclosure arising under sections seven and eight of the Privacy Act. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, an intervener, argued that information is not publicly available unless it is “obtainable from another source or available in the public domain for ongoing use by the public.”

The Court agreed with the applicant. It said:

From the time of their placement on the Public Record, such documents are held by the Agency acting as a quasi-judicial, or court-like body, and from that time they become subject to the full application of open court principle. It follows, in my view, that, once on the Public Record, such documents necessarily become Publicly Available.

Lukács v. Canada (Transport, Infrastructure and Communities), 2015 FCA 140 (CanLII).

BCCA says arbitrators have discretion to identify grievors despite PIPA

15 Aug

On August 12th the Court of Appeal for British Columbia held that British Columbia labour arbitrators are bound by British Columbia’s provincial private sector privacy legislation but do not need consent to collect, use or disclose grievor and witness personal information.

This was an appeal of a decision by Arbitrator Lanyon issued in October 2013. Mr. Lanyon dismissed a union claim that the Personal Information Protection Act prevents arbitrators from disclosing personal information of individuals in a final decision without their consent. Mr. Lanyon made his decision on multiple bases, perhaps because the union had put him on notice that it would appeal any unfavourable decision!

The Court of Appeal’s decision is much more simple. It held that PIPA applies to labour arbitrators when the term “organization” is read purposely. It then held that disclosure without consent is “required or authorized by law” based on a provision in the Labour Relations Code that requires arbitrators to file a copy of their awards for publication. Although this provision does not specifically require the filing of an award that includes personal information, the Court said:

It is difficult to see how a decision-maker, who is obliged to provide reasons that are subject to various levels of review, could possibly avoid disclosing personal information, as required by PIPA. The suggestion of the Union of using initials would not, in many cases, comply with the requirements of PIPA.

Arbitrators, the Court noted, have a discretion to use initials of parties or witness to protect privacy interests or “however they see fit.”

This is a matter in which the outcome reached by Mr. Lanyon and the Court of Appeal is very sensible and supportable on a policy-based analysis. One may question, however, whether the Court of Appeal’s simplistic basis for determining the matter is open to attack.

United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Local 1518 v Sunrise Poultry Processors Ltd, 2015 BCCA 354 (CanLII).

BCCA affirms order requiring Google to render domains unsearchable

14 Jun

Last Thursday, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia issued an important decision about the power of a domestic court to make orders against non-party, internet “intermediaries” – in this case, search engine provider Google.

The matter involved an order made to help a network hardware manufacturer enforce its intellectual property rights against a former distributor who had gone rogue. After the plaintiff sued the former distributor, it went underground – essentially running a “clandestine” effort to pass off its own products as the plaintiff’s products. This scheme relied on the internet and, to a degree, Google’s market-dominant search engine.

Google voluntarily took steps so searches conducted at the Google.ca search page would not return specific web pages published by the defendants. The plaintiffs sought and obtained an order to block entire domains and to block searches originating from all jurisdictions. Google appealed, making a number of broad arguments about the impact of the order (and its kind) on comity principle of private international law as well as international (internet-based) freedom of expression.

The Court of Appeal dismissed Google’s appeal, demonstrating significant sympathy for the perils facing the British Columbia plaintiff. And while the Court was sensitive to the principles raised by Google (along with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Electronic Frontier Foundation as interveners), it held that the principles were not engaged in the matter:

… Courts should be very cautious in making orders that might place limits on expression in another country. Where there is a realistic possibility that an order with extraterritorial effect may offend another state’s core values, the order should not be made.

In the case before us, there is no realistic assertion that the judge’s order will offend the sensibilities of any other nation. It has not been suggested that the order prohibiting the defendants from advertising wares that violate the intellectual property rights of the plaintiffs offends the core values of any nation. The order made against Google is a very limited ancillary order designed to ensure that the plaintiffs’ core rights are respected.

This reasoning by the Court of Appeal relates back to a significant admission by Google – an admission recorded by the chambers judge as follows: “Google acknowledges that most countries will likely recognize intellectual property rights and view the selling of pirated products as a legal wrong.”

The Court of Appeal decision is therefore relatively balanced. In general, it will help those seeking civil remedies deal with global internet intermediaries such as Google. However, global search engine “takedown orders” of the kind issued in this case will not necessarily be easy to obtain and enforce.

Equustek Solutions Inc. v. Google Inc., 2015 BCCA 265 (CanLII).

Canadian Association of University Solicitors social media presentation

19 Sep

Here’s a slide deck from a presentation I delivered today at the CAUS 2014 conference, with some new content I developed on “student expression, policy and law.”