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Ethics committee urged to look beyond Facebook with privacy study

Members of Parliament are facing pressure to expand the scope of a Facebook study to include a closer look at Google, which collects massive amounts of data on individuals and is a vital link between businesses and their customers.

On Tuesday, a House of Commons committee will launch a two-week review of the misuse of Facebook data, and MPs say they will then determine whether a broader study of internet privacy is required.

“If there’s a need to go beyond that based on the evidence that we hear, then we’ll go beyond that,” said Liberal MP and committee vice-chair Nathaniel Erskine-Smith. “The idea right now is to focus on the specific issue as much as possible.”

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Federal privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien will be the committee’s first witness. On Thursday, MPs will hear directly from Facebook Canada’s head of public policy, Kevin Chan, and the company’s California-based deputy-chief privacy officer, Robert Sherman, will appear via a video link.

Sydney Eatz, who voluntarily photographs and reviews businesses for Google’s official “Local Guides” program, has warned in a brief to the committee that the internet giant is not doing enough to police malicious edits to web addresses, locations and phone numbers on Google Maps. Such edits could give potential customers an incorrect phone number for a company or say it has closed.

She said this is an escalating issue that is creating major headaches for businesses and can put government services at risk.

“This is about to become the most significant problem for businesses in Canada,” Ms. Eatz wrote in her brief.

Ms. Eatz has the support of Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association, which is also calling on MPs to use the hearings as an opportunity to press Google to improve the security of its online listings.

Google spokesperson Alexandra Hunnings Klein said businesses should use the company’s “Google My Business” program, an online listing that appears prominently in a web search, to ensure accuracy.

“We use manual and automated systems to detect for spam and fraud, but we tend not to share details behind our processes so as not to tip off spammers or others with bad intent,” she said.

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The committee, which examines issues involving access to information, privacy and ethics, approved a motion proposing the study late last month, after reports that a research firm called Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained the Facebook data of millions of people, including more than 600,000 Canadians. The stories quoted Christopher Wylie, a Canadian data specialist who had worked in a senior role at Cambridge Analytica.

The motion states that, in light of those reports, the MPs will study the privacy implications of platform monopolies – listing Facebook, Google and Amazon - “and possible national and international regulatory and legislative remedies to assure the privacy of citizens’ data and the integrity of democratic and electoral processes around the globe.”

In interviews, committee members said the goal is to have four meetings over the next two weeks focused primarily on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. After that, the MPs will discuss whether to launch a broader study.

The committee has invited Mr. Wylie, representatives of Google and others to appear, but has not announced the full list. Ms. Hunnings Klein told The Globe the company will send someone.

NDP MP Charlie Angus, who proposed the study, said he has questions for Google about the protection of private information. He said it may be time for some form of government regulation in this area.

“We will look at some of the issues with Google and Amazon so that we can make comparisons to see if there is a larger issue that has to be addressed in terms of the data and privacy rights of Canadians,” he said.

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