The re-elected Liberal government will prioritize strengthening Canada’s privacy laws, including through new and larger fines for violations, according to the minister responsible for the file.
Navdeep Bains, the Minister for Innovation, Science and Industry, launched consultations earlier this year ahead of the federal election in October. They included specific measures to bring Canada’s privacy laws more in line with recent international changes that impose stricter enforcement on companies that gather and analyze personal information. The government called the proposed changes a digital charter.
The privacy commissioners of British Columbia and Canada highlighted the problems with the current rules this week when a joint investigation found B.C.-based political consulting firm AggregateIQ broke privacy laws but would not face any fines.
Ottawa is proposing extensive changes to the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, which governs how private-sector companies manage and protect personal information.
Plans outlined in a federal consultation paper include giving the Privacy Commissioner stronger powers to investigate and audit companies and to “substantially” increase the range of fines that can be imposed for violating the law.
The consultations are not yet closed. The precise timing of the government’s next moves won’t be decided until after ministers receive their mandate letters from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“This is a key priority for Minister Bains as we move forward in the digital era,” said Dani Keenan, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bains. Ms. Keenan noted the government’s proposals for legislative changes include “meaningful penalties for violations.”
During the previous Parliament, MPs on the access to information, privacy and ethics committee held extensive hearings into AggregateIQ and the related controversy over Cambridge Analytica, a British firm that obtained the personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users without consent for use in political campaigns.
The committee reached an all-party consensus that Canada’s privacy laws are in urgent need of an update. The MPs also called for stronger legal oversight of Canadian political parties, which are currently exempt from federal privacy laws.
The Liberal Party platform promised to implement the digital charter, but was silent on extending privacy laws to political parties.
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who was a vice-chair of the committee that called for changes, said he expects privacy reforms will be a major topic of debate in the new Parliament and said he will continue to advocate for stronger oversight of political parties.
“Without question, our Privacy Commissioner should have the power to levy fines where companies break our privacy laws,” he said, adding that he fully expects the Liberal government will follow through on promises to act in that area.
Conservative MP Peter Kent said the proposed digital charter does not go far enough in deterring companies from abusing personal privacy. He also said the privacy commissioner should be given oversight of political parties.
“It’s not enough for parties to self-police themselves,” he said.
Mr. Kent said Canada’s privacy laws have clearly fallen behind, and that the Liberals “have been very slow” in responding to widespread calls for tougher laws.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, the other vice-chair of the ethics committee, said this week’s commissioner reports and the lack of fines are not surprising, but highlight the need for Parliament to act.
“There’s a huge black hole that needs to be fixed,” he said.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.