Payphones by Christopher Parsons (All Rights Reserved)
I have a paper on telecommunications transparency reports which has been accepted for publication in Business and Society for later this year.
Centrally, the paper finds that companies will not necessarily produce easily comparable reports in relatively calm political waters and that, even should reports become comparable, they may conceal as much as they reveal. Using a model for evaluating transparency reporting used by Fung, Graham, and Weil in their 2007 book, Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promises of Transparency, I find that the reports issued by telecommunications companies are somewhat effective because they have led to changes in corporate behaviour and stakeholder interest, but have have been largely ineffective in prodding governments to behave more accountably. Moreover, reports issued by Canadian companies routinely omit how companies themselves are involved in facilitating government surveillance efforts when not legally required to do so. In effect, transparency reporting — even if comparable across industry partners — risks treating the symptom — the secrecy of surveillance — without getting to the cause — how surveillance is facilitated by firms themselves.
In mid-October I co-authored a submission to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) with Tamir Israel, a staff lawyer with the Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) at the University of Ottawa. Our submission was filed in support of complaints issued by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and Vaxination Informatique against Vidéotron’s (a subsidiary of Québecor Media Inc.) newly introduced Unlimited Music service.
The complaints arose after Vidéotron announced Unlimited Music, a mobile platform that offers access to a curated list of music streaming services over Vidéotron’s mobile data network without imposing data fees on the customers (often termed ‘zero rating’). In our submission, we argue that offerings of this kind raise concerns of undue preference, unjust discrimination and, more broadly, net neutrality, as addressed by the CRTC Commission in Broadcasting and Telecom Decision CRTC 2015-26 and in the Telecom Regulatory Policy CRTC 2009-657 (extended to mobile Internet access in Telecom Decision CRTC 2010-445). By zero rating specific services or categories thereof, Vidéotron is leveraging its role as a gateway to network content in order to provide its chosen services an advantage that no other competing service can match. Doing so disrupts the neutral ecosystem that is necessary for digital innovation to continue to flourish. It also raises serious ancillary privacy questions.
Our submission begins by arguing that Vidéotron’s mobile usage billing practices constitute an economic Internet traffic management practice and that zero rating services such as Unlimited Music are generally problematic. We then discuss the likely role of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technologies in facilitating Vidéotron’s zero rating practices. Next, we broadly argue that Vidéotron’s Unlimited Music offering is preferential and discriminatory; in addition to constituting an undue and unreasonable preference for certain service offerings, it unjustly discriminates against complementary offerings from other online vendors that include music in their broader product offering. Moreover, there is the potential for Vidéotron to discriminate against services that are mislabelled as ‘unlawful’. We conclude by discussing some of the other potential implications of Vidéotron’s Unlimited Music service.
Earlier this year I had a book chapter, titled “Stuck on the Agenda: Drawing Lessons from the Stagnation of “Lawful Access” Legislation in Canada” published in Law, Privacy and Surveillance in Canada in the Post-Snowden Era. The book was edited by Michael Geist and is freely available in .pdf format from the University of Ottawa Press. The edited collection brings together many of Canada’s leading thinkers on privacy and national security issues, with authors outlining how Canadian-driven intelligence operations function, the legal challenges facing Canadian signals intelligence operations, and ways to reform Canada’s ongoing signals intelligence operations and the laws authorizing those operations.
The book arguably represents the best, and most comprehensive, examination of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) in recent history. While not providing insiders’ accounts, many of the chapters draw from access to information documents, documents provided to journalists by Edward Snowden, and publicly available information concerning how intelligence operations are conducted by Canadian authorities. In aggregate they critically investigate the actual and alleged intelligence practices undertaken by Canadian authorities.
My contribution focuses on the politics associated with Canada’s lawful access legislation, and identifies some of the political conditions that may precede successful opposition to legislation that expands or reifies both domestic and foreign intelligence surveillance practices. Specifically, the chapter begins by outlining how agenda-setting operates and the roles of different agendas, tactics, and framings. Next, it turns to the Canadian case and identifies key actors, actions, and stages of the lawful access debates. The agenda-setting literature lets us identify and explain why opponents of the Canadian legislation were so effective in hindering its passage and what the future holds for opposing similar legislative efforts in Canada. The final section steps away from the Canadian case to suggest that there are basic as well as additive general conditions that may precede successful political opposition to newly formulated or revealed government surveillance powers that focus on either domestic or signals intelligence operations. You can read the chapter on pages 256-283.
Academics, private companies, journalists, non-government organizations, and government agencies have all made significant contributions to the telecommunications transparency debate in Canada since the beginning of this year. This post briefly describes the most significant contributions along with links to the relevant publications.
A trio of telecommunications companies also released transparency reports in the first half of 2015. WIND Mobile’s Mobile Transparency (2014) revealed a significant decrease in requests for customer name and address information, and a modest increase of emergency response requests combined with an explosion of court ordered/legislative demands requests. TELUS and Rogers also released transparency reports; overall TELUS’ report shows a small decrease in government requests whereas Rogers’ report shows a significant decrease of roughly 60,000 fewer requests. The relative merits of companies’ transparency reports were discussed in the Telecom Transparency Project’s report, mentioned previously. Industry Canada also released transparency reporting guidelines to “help private organizations be open with their customers, regarding the management and sharing of their personal information with government, while respecting the work of law enforcement, national security agencies, and regulatory authorities.” Some thoughts on those guidelines were published by Michael Geist as well as by the Telecom Transparency Project.
Government Investigations into Domestic Data Collection
During this time the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada also audited how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) collected and used subscriber data. This data was obtained from Canadian telecommunications companies. The Office found that, “the RCMP’s information management systems were not designed to identify files which contained warrantless access requests to subscriber information, we were unable to select a representative sample of files to review. Consequently, we were unable to assess the sufficiency of controls that may exist or if the collection of warrantless requests from TSPs was, or was not in compliance with the collection requirements of the Privacy Act.” The challenges experienced by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada were perhaps unsurprising, given that the RCMP stated in 2014 that they did not have a way of tracking subscriber data requests in response to questions from MP Charmaine Borg.
Signals Intelligence-Related Publications
There have also been a series of contributions that have focused prominently on Canada’s foreign signals intelligence organization, the Communications Security Establishment. Michael Geist’s edited collection, Law, Privacy and Surveillance in the Post-Snowden Era, contains nine contributions grouped into three parts: understanding surveillance in Canada, legal issues, and prospects for reform. In addition to Geist’s collection, two Canadian archives have been created to host Snowden documents. The first, “The Snowden Archives,” is hosted by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. The Snowden Archives contain approximately 400 documents and were compiled “to provide a tool that would facilitate citizen and researcher access to these important documents.” The second is the “Canadian SIGINT Summaries” which collate leaked documents that are exclusively linked to CSE’s operations. The SIGINT Summaries identify when the documents were created, provide a summary of the documents themselves, and also include metadata such as length, codenames, and news stories linked with the documents’ publication. Finally, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Globe and Mail have both published stories based on Snowden documents.
Overall, there has been an exceptional amount written on telecom transparency issues in Canada. Several transparency reports are expected later this year from Sasktel, MTS Allstream, and TekSavvy. And the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, though its Community Investment Program, is funding projects which will help Canadians request their personal information from public and private organizations alike as well as to help companies develop transparency reports. The coming months promise to continue being busy for transparency in Canada!
Photo Credit: stack by hobvias sudoneighm (CC BY 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/Fecq6
The Canadian SIGINT Summaries includes downloadable copies, along with summary, publication, and original source information, of leaked CSE documents.
Parsons, Christopher; and Molnar, Adam. (2021). “Horizontal Accountability and Signals Intelligence: Lesson Drawing from Annual Electronic Surveillance Reports,” David Murakami Wood and David Lyon (Eds.), Big Data Surveillance and Security Intelligence: The Canadian Case.
Parsons, Christopher. (2015). “Stuck on the Agenda: Drawing lessons from the stagnation of ‘lawful access’ legislation in Canada,” Michael Geist (ed.), Law, Privacy and Surveillance in Canada in the Post-Snowden Era (Ottawa University Press).
Parsons, Christopher. (2015). “The Governance of Telecommunications Surveillance: How Opaque and Unaccountable Practices and Policies Threaten Canadians,” Telecom Transparency Project.
Parsons, Christopher. (2015). “Beyond the ATIP: New methods for interrogating state surveillance,” in Jamie Brownlee and Kevin Walby (Eds.), Access to Information and Social Justice (Arbeiter Ring Publishing).
Bennett, Colin; Parsons, Christopher; Molnar, Adam. (2014). “Forgetting and the right to be forgotten” in Serge Gutwirth et al. (Eds.), Reloading Data Protection: Multidisciplinary Insights and Contemporary Challenges.
Bennett, Colin, and Parsons, Christopher. (2013). “Privacy and Surveillance: The Multi-Disciplinary Literature on the Capture, Use, and Disclosure of Personal information in Cyberspace” in W. Dutton (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies.
McPhail, Brenda; Parsons, Christopher; Ferenbok, Joseph; Smith, Karen; and Clement, Andrew. (2013). “Identifying Canadians at the Border: ePassports and the 9/11 legacy,” in Canadian Journal of Law and Society 27(3).
Parsons, Christopher; Savirimuthu, Joseph; Wipond, Rob; McArthur, Kevin. (2012). “ANPR: Code and Rhetorics of Compliance,” in European Journal of Law and Technology 3(3).