The protection of personal information is an important issue as business operations become increasingly global in nature. Coupled with the Internet enabling personal data to be distributed almost instantaneously across the globe, privacy has quickly become a critical international concern that can often be confusing due to a global patchwork of laws and regulations. A US organization conducting business in multiple foreign jurisdictions must be aware privacy laws are not equal everywhere. Unless the most restrictive regulatory regime is adopted, country by country procedures may be necessary.
Canada While Canada is often assumed to be similar to the US with respect to business practices, privacy regulation is another matter. The Canadian approach to confidentiality and the transfer of personal information is much more in line with the European model than that of the US. (It was, in fact, designed to be this way.) The federal personal information protection regime in the Canadian private sector is mainly governed by the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which became effective in 2004 and extends privacy protection to all personal data collected by companies on individuals in the course of commercial activity, except employees other than those of a federal undertaking. It follows that, in most cases, personal information of employees is regulated by applicable provincial law. Only Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec have enacted privacy legislation. That provincial legislation, however, is substantially similar to PIPEDA. Ontario has enacted privacy legislation but only with regard to personal health information.
It is important to note that when transferring personal information outside of Canada, the transferring organization has an obligation to provide a comparable level of protection meaning the level of protection provided by the third party must be comparable to the level of protection afforded the personal information within Canada. The Privacy Commissioner of Canada has ruled that, not withstanding the USA PATRIOT Act, personal information transferred to the US can benefit from protection similar to that enjoyed in Canada. She added, however, that notice must be given to individuals alerting them to the fact their information will be stored in the US where it becomes subject to the USA PATRIOT Act.
Another recent, high-profile example involved Facebook, the hugely popular social networking site. On July 16, 2009, Canada's Privacy Commissioner ruled that Facebook was in breach of Canadian privacy laws on several fronts, particularly with respect to the circumstances surrounding consent to the disclosure of personal information to third party application developers and the retention of personal information of users who had closed their accounts. Initially, Facebook resisted complete compliance with the Privacy Commissioner's recommendations. However, given the Commissioner's ability to submit the matter to the courts, Facebook ultimately proposed solutions satisfying Canadian privacy laws.
Another recent example illustrating this is the case of Abika.com, a US-based online data broker. On July 31, 2009, after a nearly five-year investigation, the Privacy Commissioner ruled Abika had violated Canadian privacy laws by disclosing the personal information of Canadians without their knowledge or consent to third parties.
The EU has developed a very sophisticated personal information protection regime with stringent standards that has influenced the adoption of privacy laws throughout the world. Directive 95/46 sets out the general principles with regard to the processing of personal information, which are now implemented in the national law of every EU member state. The underlying principles of Directive 95/46 were largely based on those of international bodies, like the OECD's Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data.
The EU's privacy legislation closely resembles that of Canada, however, how this legislation is interpreted can lead to some surprising differences, particularly with respect to the validity of consent given to the collection, use and disclosure of personal information.
Consent is in the lynchpin of Canadian privacy legislation. In the EU Directive, persons from or about whom data is collected must unambiguously grant their consent before such data is collected, after having been informed about the purpose(s) for which the data will be used. The interpretation of the validity of consent may impact a US business processing personal information of European customers or employees. For example, relying on employee consent to the collection of certain personal information can prove to be difficult since some European countries question whether that consent is "freely given" given the desire to be employed or to keep employment.
Another key tenet of the EU privacy directive is that it prohibits the transfer of personal information to non-EU countries, including the US, unless those countries provide adequate protection for the information. While the US has not been, officially, deemed to provide adequate protection, the two jurisdictions are negotiating so as to facilitate normal business relations. The Safe Harbor Agreement allows US companies to avoid sanctions imposed by the EU if they voluntarily embrace a somewhat less stringent version of the EU privacy directive.
THE REST OF THE WORLD
Once you move out of Canada and Europe, all bets are off with respect to the extent that privacy legislation exists or is enforced. In many jurisdictions there is no one law or regulatory framework governing privacy. Instead, laws or regulations relating to privacy are often found as a sub-set of sector-specific or constitutional laws.
Asia-Pacific: Regions that have recently adopted privacy legislation include Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Macao, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan. China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand are currently in the process of drafting legislation. Indonesia, Singapore, Vanuatu and Vietnam only have privacy provisions in sector-specific laws. Still, many Asia-Pacific regions do not have privacy legislation, including Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and the majority of the small Pacific island countries.
India: India does not have comprehensive privacy laws in place. The right of privacy is not expressly recognized in the Constitution of India, although the Supreme Court of India has implied it from article 21 of the Constitution, which states that, "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law." However, this right is not absolute and can be restricted under procedures established by law or if a superior interest commands it. Laws that do exist relate to the privacy of data held by public financial bodies (e.g. banks) and electronic data (the Information Technology Act of 2000). India is moving to bring their privacy laws in step with Europe and other jurisdictions. The Personal Data Protection Bill, based primarily on foreign privacy legislations, was introduced in 2006 and is currently still pending.
Latin America: Currently, very few Latin American regions have any privacy legislation and there is no cohesive framework for the region. However, the importance of a harmonized privacy legal framework for the region has been recognized and many countries in this region are currently working on developing it.
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