Canada's privacy chief warns of copyright reform dangers

Canadian copyright reform is in danger of stopping consumers blocking spyware, Canada's Privacy Commissioner has warned.

Jennifer Stoddart has added her voice to the concerns of activists opposing reforms which are seen as too industry-friendly.

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has written to industry minister Jim Prentice and heritage minister Josee Verner warning that some of the technologies used to protect copyright invade citizens' privacy, but proposed legislation stops consumers protecting themselves.

The letter concerns digital rights management (DRM) technology which is embedded into music or video files or on to discs to stop users from copying material. Some DRM goes further than that, though.

"If DRM technologies only controlled copying and use of content, our Office would have few concerns," said Stoddart in her letter. "However, DRM technologies can also collect detailed personal information from users, who often do no more than access the content on a computer. This information is transmitted back to the copyright owner or content provider, without the consent or knowledge of the user."

Stoddart explained that citizens can bypass these mechanisms, but that the government was about to make that an offence. "Although the means exist to circumvent these technologies and thus prevent the collection of this information, previous proposals to amend the Copyright Act contained anti-circumvention provisions," she wrote.

"Technologies that automatically collect personal information about individuals without their knowledge or consent violate the fair information principles that are central to PIPEDA (Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act ) and most other privacy legislation," she wrote. "That this occurs when individuals are engaged in a private activity in their homes or other places where they have a high expectation of privacy exacerbates the intrusiveness of the collection."

The reform of copyright law in Canada has attracted worldwide attention and criticism from digital rights activists who argue that the new law would be too accommodating to rights holders and major entertainment corporations and would not take enough account of fair use exemptions to the law, such as those in education, for disabled people or for news coverage.

Canadian internet law expert Michael Geist has campaigned in newspaper columns and blogs for a copyright law which takes more account of the rights of users of material.

"All Members of Parliament should be comfortable with the principle that they will not introduce, support, or endorse any copyright bill that, either directly or indirectly, undermines or weakens the Copyright Act’s fair dealing provision," he wrote recently in his blog. "Fair dealing, which forms a crucial part of the copyright balance, is critically important for education and free speech and deserves full support from politicians regardless of party affiliation."

Stoddart cited as an example of secret behaviour reporting software, or spyware, Sony BMG's inclusion in is CDs in 2005 of a piece software that installed itself in a computer's root system and reported on its user's behaviour.

Stoddart also expressed concerns about proposals to allow rights holding companies to force ISPs internet service providers (ISPs) to monitor user traffic once the rights holder suspects a subscriber has violated copyright law.

"Allowing a private sector organization to require an ISP to retain personal information is a precedent-setting provision that would seriously weaken privacy protections," she wrote. "When this provision was proposed in a previous proposal to amend the legislation it did not include any threshold that had to be met before the notice could be issued, nor did it provide any means for the ISP to contest the demand to retain the data.

The extended retention periods create additional privacy concerns."

"PIPEDA requires that organizations retain personal information for only as long as necessary to fulfil the purposes for which the information was originally collected," wrote Stoddart. "We hope whatever new copyright provisions are under consideration will respect the privacy rights of Canadians."