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Jennifer Stoddart
Jennifer Stoddart

The Lunch

Jennifer Stoddart: making your privacy her business Add to ...

The other thing you need to know is that Ms. Stoddart is not in the least bit dewy-eyed about the innovative marvels of the Internet. Although she recognized in the early 2000s that the Web represented a "tectonic shift" in human society and communications, she was always skeptical that an open digital world was a gateway to the better life that its early inventors promised.

"I never believed the purists when they talked about the Internet being about everything good. I have studied too much history. Most Utopian experiments … never survive in their original shape because negative forces, some would say evil forces, are always present."

Ms. Stoddart's public-policy sensibilities probably would have gone largely unnoticed had it not been for the restless innovative mind of a Harvard University dropout named Mark Zuckerberg. When a group of Ottawa University students filed a complaint that Mr. Zuckerberg's wildly popular social network Facebook was sharing users' personal information with outsiders without permission, she found herself confronting a challenge for which she had been preparing her entire career.

"I had to find the correct line for interpreting laws and reflecting modern societal values," she says. "It was the whole philosophical challenge of being a privacy purist or realizing that this was a radical new form of communication that clearly had many benefits."

The Privacy Commission took on the difficult job of finding the right line for two reasons. Unlike the United States, Canada has privacy laws that prohibit companies from sharing personal data without customers' consent. The other factor was Ms. Stoddart. Despite a few sleepless nights, she wasn't going to shy away from enforcing the law, even if the target was the world's fastest growing enterprise.

"We went out on a limb. We had to interpret how you could continue [Facebook's]business within the confines of Canadian law," she says. At the heart of the regulator's concerns were the many "opacities" at the social network which made it hard for users to understand how to protect their data from unwanted prying eyes, particularly application makers.

"The principle of consent was important. You can't really consent if you don't know what is going on," she says. Without consent, she says, it was open season for "all those organizations behind the scenes scarfing your personal information."

The commission grabbed international headlines in 2008 and put privacy fears on the public radar when it announced the world's first privacy investigation into Facebook. Ms. Stoddart says it took a while for the California-based company to "wake up and smell the coffee," but after months it agreed to a number of changes to give Facebook users more powers to shield their data and opt out of applications that gave outside organizations access to that data.

The hardest part about the Facebook investigation was not the difficult negotiations with the upstart company, but rather the company's privacy flip-flops. After the initial discussions, the company had agreed to allow users to block application developers from grabbing their photos, videos and personal information. That change was to take effect in August, 2010. But then, last spring, Facebook suddenly shifted course and said it would allow the developers to grab data after all.

"It was a very difficult moment," Ms. Stoddart recalls, because it appeared that Facebook was gearing up to test the small regulator's limited enforcement powers. Under current legislation, the Privacy Commission has no power to fine or restrict privacy offenders. Instead it can only refer cases to a Federal court.

"Thank goodness," Ms. Stoddart says, Facebook blinked and rolled out a series of clear and potent privacy protections that are starting to be emulated by other technology companies. Indeed this week Microsoft announced that it is reviving a powerful privacy tool in the next version of its Internet browser that will allow users to stop websites and tracking companies from gathering information about them.

Ms. Stoddart says the Internet privacy battle "is not over yet, because it is such a fast-changing world." After the federal government extended her mandate this week by another three years, she hints she will be seeking more enforcement powers for the commission, but she declines to divulge specifics.

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