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opinion

According to research from the Canadian Marketing Association, only 24 per cent of the country are data fundamentalists, hesitant to share personal information for any reason.Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

John Wiltshire is president and CEO of the Canadian Marketing Association.

Recent news headlines have shed a global spotlight on privacy issues. If you follow the news, you might jump to the conclusion that consumers are reluctant to share their personal information. But there is strong evidence that most consumers want the benefits that come from responsible data sharing.

The Canadian Marketing Association (CMA) recently met with a senior stakeholder who was accompanied by two young professional advisers to discuss consumer privacy. The meeting quickly focused on the core issues: Do companies really need personal information from consumers? Do consumers want their personal information used to market things to them?

As the discussion progressed, the CMA turned to one of the young advisers and asked: “What do you think?” Without hesitation, the adviser conveyed her absolute expectation for ads that offer products and services relevant to her interests. “When an online store shows me an ad for a raincoat,” she said, “I don’t want to see just any raincoat, I want to see the raincoat that I actually might want to purchase.”

This was a clarifying moment in the discussion. Canada is faced with increasingly sophisticated consumers, including tech-savvy millennials who grew up in a digital world. According to our research, a strong majority (76 per cent) of Canadian consumers show no fundamental objection to engaging in the data economy. This includes more than half (53 per cent) of consumers who are data pragmatists, willing to exchange personal information if there is a clear benefit or value exchange. Only 24 per cent of Canadians are data fundamentalists, reluctant to share personal information for any purpose.

The young professional who wanted to see relevant ads clearly appreciates the benefits of data-driven decision-making, which – with proper safeguards – has overcome numerous challenges and has led to conveniences that many consumers embrace.

We live in a digital and interconnected economy, in which consumers can enjoy the benefits of increasingly intuitive products and services to match their evolving expectations. As policy-makers across the globe grapple with how to balance business innovation while protecting individual rights, it is important to consider the impact that their decisions will have for real people and real businesses.

The General Data Protection Regulation, the European Union’s new privacy law, passed its one-year anniversary this spring, and it is experiencing some growing pains. To our south, the state of California is preparing to implement the strictest privacy legislation ever enacted in the United States, which it will begin to enforce next summer.

While it is too early to conclude how effective these two laws will be and whether they cause any serious unintended consequences, we now turn our attention to see how Canada’s decision-makers wrestle with these fundamental issues.

The Government of Canada’s recently released Digital Charter provides a set of guiding principles to develop more trust in the digital economy. These are principles – from universal access to safety and security – with which we can all agree. Along with the Digital Charter came a set of significant reform proposals to Canada’s privacy law for businesses: the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).

This incredibly important reform process mustn’t be rushed. The government’s summer consultation on PIPEDA reform offers industry and other stakeholders the opportunity to find ways to preserve the considerable strengths of the existing framework, while providing feedback on some of the most complex privacy issues of our time. These include subjects such as data de-identification, in which companies aim to separate data from the individual for decision-making purposes, and data portability, which could allow consumers to assume control of, and shop around with, their unique “data footprint.”

Advances in technology have created some challenges around obtaining meaningful consent for data collection, including the length and complexity of today’s privacy policies and the speed with which consumers interact with content and technology. But at the same time, they have enabled organizations to provide increasingly efficient and valuable services to consumers, and the improved capacity to protect personal information through better encryption, blockchain and more.

Finding the right balance between meeting consumers’ demands for smart services and products, and ensuring appropriate privacy measures, requires careful thought and long-term solutions that are right for Canada.

As we all strive to inform government’s plans to modernize our privacy law, let’s retain the core strengths of PIPEDA and put the consumer first. We need a balanced policy response that equally acknowledges consumers who are data pragmatists – like the young professional wanting ads about her preferred dress – with those who are data fundamentalists and the whole grey area in between.