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Federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien says he hopes annual report will make more people aware that his office can help resolve such problems.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada's privacy watchdog says it was the power of persuasion that helped get results for more than two dozen Canadians who had details of their legal troubles posted on a Romanian website.

Daniel Therrien, the federal Privacy Commissioner, wrote in his annual report to Parliament last week that the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) received 27 complaints in 2014 about the website, which republishes court decisions from several jurisdictions with a large focus on Canada.

Legal rulings are public information, but this became a problem for individuals named in the cases posted on the site, called Globe24h, because it allows Google and other search engines to scan its contents and include them in search results. The Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII), the site from which Globe24h copied hundreds of decisions in 2012, does not allow them to be indexed.

All of a sudden, the ins and outs of their court cases – often highly personal divorce law or immigration matters – began popping up whenever someone googled their names. At one point, the site requested a fee for the quick removal of personal information, leaving those affected facing what many viewed as extortion.

"We contacted the person responsible for the website and we had some co-operation from him. He agreed to delete some of the information from his website at no cost," Mr. Therrien said in an interview. "That's one of our approaches actually: Contacting these sites even if there may be questions about jurisdiction or the effectiveness of Canada's laws reaching to other countries. Just these contacts can be effective."

"They were not wholly effective, but they were in large part effective in this case," he added.

The OPC said it was able to have the contested court documents removed from the Globe24h site without cost "in almost all instances" related to the complaints it received, although it added in the report that "concerns persist about the site's overall operation." Mr. Therrien said Canada is also working with the Romanian data protection authority "to fill the gap to have a more complete answer."

"It's not a complete system. There's no universal law of privacy that's applied across the globe, but we're not without means," he said. "In the annual report, we wanted to confirm that data flows across borders and that creates privacy risks. That's on the negative side, but on the plus side, privacy commissioners around the world are organizing to, as best we can, address these issues globally."

Yet, there are many people whose legal details were posted on the Romanian site who looked for help – often in vain – from Google, the courts, police and other privacy authorities. CanLII said it had almost 100 complaints about the Romanian site in 2014 and, as of December, Reputation.ca, which charges a fee of $1,500 per case, had helped about 30 people get their information removed from the website.

Mr. Therrien said he hopes that highlighting the case in the annual report will make more people aware that the OPC can help resolve such problems.

When court rulings were only published in legal textbooks, the details of individuals' dealings with the court system were protected in part due to "privacy by obscurity." This case has illustrated how easily personal privacy can be lost in a digital world. Yet, there is no easy solution as the court system operates under the principle of open access and the information is public.

The Canadian Judicial Council has published guidelines urging judges to carefully consider how much personal information they include in rulings likely to be posted online. Another suggested practice is that court judgments should not be indexed by search engines.

Mr. Therrien said an absolute ban on indexing court rulings "would get into territory similar to conversations in Europe about the 'right to be forgotten,' which puts into play the need to ensure as much privacy as possible."

He said the OPC is studying the "right to be forgotten" in the Canadian context and plans to release a discussion paper on the topic within the year.