Tag Archives: privacy law

US and Canada – similar countries, similar privacy laws… right? Wrong.

We are often engaged to review Privacy Policies from a U.S. and Canadian legal perspective.  In many cases these Privacy Policies were drafted by Canadian counsel without considering the laws of the client’s major market, the U.S.  The privacy laws of Canada and the U.S. are quite different and a failure to comply with U.S. privacy law can have enormous financial implications.  Accordingly, it is critical that Canadian companies ensure that their Privacy Policies are compliant on both sides of the border.

Below we detail three common privacy law issues that Canadian companies have when entering the US market.

1. The US is far bigger and more complex than Canada

In Canada, with a couple of exceptions, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) covers most privacy law issues in the commercial sphere.  Conversely, in the U.S., companies must comply with several different federal privacy laws, as well as state laws, the latter playing a major role in privacy protection.  This means that companies need to worry about complying with the privacy laws of all 50 states as well as several federal laws.

2. Same words, different meanings

Although both countries write their laws in English (In Canada – en Français aussi), words can have varying meanings under the law.  In privacy law in particular, certain key concepts are very different between Canadian and U.S. privacy laws, and companies that ignore these differences open themselves up to huge liability.

For example, the term personal information, at the core of privacy law in both countries, has different meanings in both countries and in the US there is no standard definition from one law to the next, or one state to the next. This means that while you might be compliant in Canada with the current way that you collect data from customers, the exact same data collection practice may be non-compliant in the US.

Other major privacy law concepts that differ in the US include: privacy of children under 13 years old, standards for “consent” and “breach”, rules for third-party access to personal information and jurisdiction issues.

3. Fines are far greater in the US

The price to pay for not complying with US privacy laws is far greater than not complying with Canadian privacy laws. For example, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC), the Canadian privacy law enforcement body, does not have the authority to fine companies for most privacy law violations.

In the US, by contrast, recent fines imposed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and sister body, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), consistently are in the million-dollar range and even up to $25 million in some cases.  Even simple violations such as gathering temporary personal information of children prior to getting parental consent can garner fines of up to a million dollars.  And be aware, the first piece of evidence that the FTC will use to see if a company is complying with US privacy law, is its online privacy policy. If you haven’t changed your privacy policy from a Canadian law compliant privacy policy to a cross-border compliant privacy policy, you are putting your company at huge risk.

Canada’s population is 1/10 that of the U.S.  For business, this means that most Canadian companies are going to look to the U.S. for revenue generation and in the process create exposure to U.S. laws, including privacy laws.  It’s critical that companies stay on top of their exposure to U.S. laws and engage legal counsel to ensure that their operations are fully compliant.

Balancing Growth with Legal Compliance

Frequently, large technology companies face lawsuits in foreign courts over their failure to comply with foreign laws, primarily those concerning privacy, sales and consumer rights.  In Germany, WhatsApp’s Terms of Service violated consumer protection laws; in Canada, Facebook is challenging the application of Canadian privacy law; and in Australia, Valve’s no return policy allegedly violates consumer protection laws.  As your startup grows, users may come from major markets across the world and create a challenge – how to balance growth with legal compliance?

Governing law clauses (X law applies and X courts have jurisdiction) are frequently unable to prevent the application of foreign laws to your company – just ask WhatsApp, Facebook or Valve.  Therein, to comply with the laws of only one market naturally leaves your startup exposed to legal liability for non-compliance in other markets.  While I suggest considering compliance with the law of each market in which you gain traction, I also recognize that cost concerns and a startup’s focus on growth strategies means that compliance is always on the back burner.

When balancing growth with legal compliance, consider:

1.  Size of your company in each market:  the larger your company is in a market, the more likely the laws of that market will be asserted against you.

2.  General size of your company:  the larger (and wealthier) your company is, the more likely the laws of foreign markets will be asserted against you.

3.  Potential liability:  How large is your company’s exposure to liability for non-compliance in each market?  How comfortable is the company with this exposure?

4.  PR:  Does non-compliance create a substantial chance for bad PR in that market?

Small startups (and large technology companies) frequently focus on growth over legal compliance.  Indeed, at the start of your company, potential liability is low as the company is flying under the radar – here, focusing on growth makes sense.  Once you company grows, legal compliance should be weighed and constantly reevaluated as laws, and your company, change.

FTC Beats Snapchat – Important Privacy Policy Lessons

I often stress the need to keep your Privacy Policy up-to-date; case in point, Snapchat’s settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.  In the action, the FTC found that Snapchat deceived users with incorrect claims about privacy and misrepresented its data collection practices.  Ultimately, the FTC subjected Snapchat to 20 years of independent privacy monitoring.

A few key lessons:

1.  Don’t misrepresent.  All representations about your software must be accurate, especially those concerning privacy.  If you don’t secure the app using X methods, don’t say that it is secured that way!  As the FTC states, “Any company that makes misrepresentations to consumers about its privacy and security practices risks FTC action.”

2.  Keep the Privacy Policy up-to-date.  The development team should keep track of all information collected by the software and loop the legal team in whenever a new feature or element is added.  Often misrepresentations result from outdated privacy policies that do not keep pace with software development.  Further, if marketing wants to make claims about software privacy, make sure to run the claims by the legal team first – best not to make public claims that conflict with the privacy policy.

3.  If you have information, act!  If users point out securities flaws with your software, seriously consider them and document action taken in response.  In Snapchat’s case, numerous users pointed out security flaws that were disregarded and such conduct certainly factored into the FTC’s decision.

When to Update your ToS and Privacy Policy?

When your Terms of Service, End User License Agreement and Privacy Policy are first drafted they reflect how your software operates at a particular point in time.  However, as software and your business changes over time, these documents are often left behind and stop reflecting how the software operates.  The effectiveness of these documents is hindered when your software steps beyond their scope.

Not every change to your software requires an amendment to the ToS, EULA or PP.  Where the change is encompassed by the language of the documents, no amendment is required.  Conversely, if the change adds a new, or changes a current, feature, collects additional information or uses information differently and that is not reflected in these legal documents, then an amendment is likely required.

Ideally, your documents should constantly evolve, lockstep with your software’s evolution, and allow you to avoid the effort and cost involved in drafting new, or substantially amended, documents every few years.  Where you believe that a software change is not reflected in your ToS, EULA or PP, I recommend consulting with your legal counsel to determine whether an amendment to these documents is needed.