Skip to main content

Colin Bennett is a professor in the department of political science at the University of Victoria.

The Liberal government’s “digital charter” promises strong new measures to protect online privacy, and to rein in the power of big tech companies. But it makes no sense to regulate Facebook, Twitter, Google and other online platforms without also regulating the political parties that use them to seek our votes and our donations.

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains received a sweeping mandate from the Prime Minister to give Canadians an expanded set of rights over their personal data. These include data portability, or the right to transfer our personal data from one online platform to another; the right to erase data from a platform; the right to withdraw consent for the sale of our personal data; the right to challenge the amount of data a corporation or government agency holds on us; and the right to know when our data have been breached.

These reforms will require some radical changes to privacy protection laws to bring them into line with global standards. There is even to be a data commissioner, although details are not yet available on how the powers of this office will relate to those of the privacy commissioner.

Modern digital technologies are obviously shaping and “curating” the information we consume online, giving big tech companies enormous power over world views, and extraordinary abilities to modify political beliefs and behaviours. It is a huge problem, and the measures proposed in the digital charter are an important step.

But they are only half measures if the political parties that use these platforms remain largely unregulated.

It was principally the manipulation of online platforms for political ends that brought these questions to global public attention, through the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica Ltd. So it looks odd for the government to ignore the parties at the centre of the campaigning “ecosystem.”

Privacy laws apply to political parties in most other democracies. They apply in British Columbia. There is no credible reason why they should not also apply at the federal level. Many voices have advocated reform. The Centre for Digital Rights has called upon five separate regulators to investigate political parties’ use of personal information.

This is not a hypothetical problem. Practices used in the recent election campaign need to be reined in.

For instance, we saw a lot of “microtargeting” – messages precisely tailored to key groups of voters in swing ridings to encourage them to vote (or not). For the first time in Canada, Facebook published information on the political ads delivered on its platform: who paid, how long they were active and to whom they were targeted.

Microtargeting relies on voter profiling. Parties apply sophisticated data analytics to determine the scale and nature of the message. Facebook then “customizes” the “look-alike” audiences for clients. This may not be so troubling with ads for products and services. It reaches higher levels of concern when votes are being sought, politicians are being marketed and democratic opinion is being formed.

The campaign also included unsolicited messages. The Conservatives, for instance, mass-texted millions of randomly generated phone numbers in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick, saying gasoline prices were about to go up. The texts linked to a different web address in each province, advertising Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s plan to scrap the federal carbon tax and inviting visitors to supply their personal information if they opposed the tax.

Mass political messaging is possible because parties take a broad view of their purported exemption from Canada’s anti-spam legislation and the national do-not-call list. These exemptions also need to be fixed.

At one level, the risks might seem harmless – you get a Christmas card from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh because of misuse of the voters list. But there is also the darker and more manipulative world of fake news, dark posts and misinformation.

Electoral propaganda relies on accurate knowledge about the recipients. If we can restrict how much the messenger can “know” about their audience in advance, we also alleviate the worst – and creepiest – aspects of electoral manipulation.

The express application of our privacy protection laws to our political parties would level that playing field. It would produce more transparency. And it would go some way to restricting how much personal data parties and candidates can process on individuals without their knowledge and consent.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe