Skip to main content

An illustration picture shows a Google logo with two one euro coins, taken in Munich January 15, 2013.

© Michael Dalder / Reuters

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has shown admirable persistence in investigating a complaint against Google Inc.

A Canadian man who suffers from sleep apnea – a temporary cessation of breathing – had searched the Internet for information about "continuous positive airway pressure" devices, which can relieve that condition. After that, ads for CPAP devices relentlessly pursued him as he travelled to other websites. He'd shut down his computer and restart, but to no avail. He kept seeing those ads.

Sleep apnea isn't an embarrassing condition, but it is a private medical matter. If Google ends up populating the websites you visit with car ads, after you do Internet searches when you want to buy a new car, that's legal. But Canadian privacy law says that companies must ask for explicit consent to use sensitive information in targeting online ads – and personal health is a sensitive matter.

Story continues below advertisement

Privacy commission staff were assiduous in replicating the complainant's CPAP searches, and they got results very similar to his. Google Inc.'s own attempts to liberate the complainant from the ads were ineffective. The company believed, apparently in good faith, that it had solved the problem when it hadn't – as the privacy commissioner was able to show.

The interim privacy commissioner, Chantal Bernier, was right to observe in an interview with The Globe that "if an organization as sophisticated as Google has difficulty ensuring compliance with its privacy policy, surely others have the same challenges. The operational challenges are inherent to online behavioural advertising."

Challenging, but legally required. Google's privacy policies are already very similar to those of Canadian privacy law. With the considerable help of the privacy commissioner, one Canadian showed an enormous corporation that it is not putting its own privacy policies into effect.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter