Skip to main content Accessibility help

Internet Service Providers as Privacy Custodians

  • Mike Zajko (a1)


This article examines the role of internet service providers (ISPs) as guardians of personal information and protectors of privacy, with a particular focus on how telecom companies in Canada have historically negotiated these responsibilities. Communications intermediaries have long been expected to act as privacy custodians by their users, while simultaneously being subject to pressures to collect, utilize, and disclose personal information. As service providers gain custody over increasing volumes of highly-sensitive information, their importance as privacy custodians has been brought into starker relief and explicitly recognized as a core responsibility.

Some ISPs have adopted a more positive orientation to this responsibility, actively taking steps to advance it, rather that treating privacy protection as a set of limitations on conduct. However, commitments to privacy stewardship are often neutralized through contradictory legal obligations (such as mandated surveillance access) and are recurrently threatened by commercial pressures to monetize personal information.

En examinant le rôle des fournisseurs de services Internet (FSI) à titre de gardiens des informations personnelles et protecteurs de la vie privée, cet article met en exergue la manière dont les entreprises de télécommunications au Canada ont, historiquement, négocié ces responsabilités. Les systèmes de communication intermédiaires sont, depuis longtemps, supposés agir tels des gardiens de la vie privée, et ce, tout en étant soumis à des pressions relatives à la collecte, l’utilisation et la divulgation de renseignements personnels. Au fur et à mesure que les fournisseurs de services acquièrent la garde de volumes croissants d’informations extrêmement sensibles, leur importance en tant que gardiens de la vie privée a été mis en relief et a été explicitement reconnue comme une responsabilité essentielle. Certains FSI ont adopté une orientation plus positive vis-à-vis de cette responsabilité, prenant activement des mesures pour promouvoir la protection de la vie privée plutôt que de la traiter comme un ensemble de limitations des conduites. Cependant, les engagements en matière de protection de la vie privée sont souvent neutralisés par des obligations légales contradictoires (telles que l’accès de surveillance obligatoire) et sont régulièrement menacés par des pressions commerciales visant la monétisation d’informations personnelles.



Hide All
Abdelnour, Samer, Hasselbladh, Hans, and Kallinikos, Jannis. 2017. “Agency and Institutions in Organization Studies.” Organization Studies 38 (12): 1775–92.
Angus Reid Institute. 2018. “Un-Liking Facebook: 3-in-4 Canadian users say data mining scandal will change how they use the platform.” Angus Reid Institute, March 26.
Balkin, Jack M. 2016. “Information fiduciaries and the first amendment.” U.C. Davis Law Review 49 (4): 11831234.
BCCLA. 2012. “Moving Towards a Surveillance Society: Proposals to expand ‘Lawful Access’ in Canada.” BC Civil Liberties Association, January 13.
Behar, Rose. 2018. “Here’s How Bell, Rogers and Telus Profit from Your Mobile Subscriber Data.” MobileSyrup, May 18.
Birnhack, Michael D., and Elkin-Koren, Niva. 2003. “The Invisible Handshake: The reemergence of the state in the digital environment.” Virginia Journal of Law and Technology 8 (2): 157.
Blackburn, Shelly. 2013. “Proud of Our Commitment to Privacy in Canada.” TELUS Blog, August 7.
Braga, Matthew. 2016. “Canadian Telecoms Push Back on Proposed Police Powers.” CBC News, December 20.
Bronskill, Jim. 2014. “Feds Were Worried as Telecom Firm Planned to Go Public on Police Access to Canadians’ Phone Calls and Emails, Memo Shows.” National Post, December 1.
Burns, John. 1969. “58 Wiretaps Last Year, Mackey Says.” Globe and Mail, June 27, 1969.
Canadian Committee on Corrections. 1969. Recommendations of the Canadian Committee on Corrections [Ouimet Report]. Ottawa: The Queen’s Printer.
Cavoukian, Ann. 2011. “Lawful Access.” The Globe and Mail, December 6, sec. Letter to the Editor.
CBC News. 2009. “ISPs Must Help Police Snoop on Internet under New Bill.” June 18.
CCAICE. 2005. “Canadian Coalition Against Internet Child Exploitation Releases National Action Plan,” May 11.
Clement, Andrew, and Obar, Jonathan A.. 2016. “Keeping Internet Users in the Know or in the Dark: An analysis of the data privacy transparency of Canadian internet carriers.” Journal of Information Policy 6: 294331.
Cohen, Stanley A. 1982. “Invasion of Privacy: Police and electronic surveillance in Canada.” McGill Law Journal 27 (November): 619–75.
Cornfield, David A. 1967. “The Right to Privacy in Canada.” Faculty of Law Review (University of Toronto) 25: 103–20.
CRTC. 2009. “Telecom Regulatory Policy 2009-723.” Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, November 25.
de Beer, Jeremy F., and Clemmer, Christopher D.. 2009. “Global Trends in Online Copyright Enforcement: A Non-Neutral Role for Network Intermediaries?” Jurimetrics 49 (4): 375409.
Distributel. 2013. “Motion Record of Distributel Communications Limited.”
Dobby, Christine. 2012. “TekSavvy Illegal Downloading: Judge Awards More Time to Warn Clients.” Financial Post, December 17.
Dobby, Christine.2015. “Bell Canada to Revamp Online Ad Program to Allow Upfront Consent.” The Globe and Mail, April 13.
Dobby, Christine.2016. “Ontario Court Rules Police Orders Breached Cellphone Users’ Charter Rights.” The Globe and Mail, January 14.
Edwards, Lilian. 2011. “Role and Responsibility of the Internet Intermediaries in the Field of Copyright and Related Rights.” Report. Geneva: WIPO.
Fraser, David. 2016. “Tower Dump Case Raises Troubling Questions about Law Enforcement and Privacy.” Canadian Privacy Law Blog, January 18.
Freeze, Colin, Dobby, Christine, and Wingrove, Josh. 2014. “TekSavvy, Rogers Break Silence over Government Requests for Data.” The Globe and Mail, June 5.
Fung, Brian. 2016. “Internet Providers Want to Know More about You than Google Does, Privacy Groups Say.” The Washington Post, January 20.
Gaudrault, Marc. 2012. “Why We Are Not Opposing Motion on Monday.” DSLReports Forums: TekSavvy.
Geist, Michael.2016. “Why Your Telecom Must Defend Your Right to Privacy.” The Toronto Star, January 25.
Goldsmith, Jack L., and Wu, Tim. 2006. Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Government of Canada. 2002. “Lawful Access—Consultation Document,” August 25.
Haggart, Blayne. 2014. Copyfight: The Global Politics of Digital Copyright Reform. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Handa, Sunny, Birbilas, Laurie, and Di Fazio, Justina. 2015. “Bill C-13: Cyberbullying Bill Introduces New Lawful Access Measures.” Blakes Bulletin, January 23.
Henderson, Peter. 2014. “Bell Defends Targeted Ad Program as ‘Transparent.’” The Wire Report, April 30.
House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. 13 February 2007. “Transcript of Meeting No. 30, February 13, 2007.”
Hubbard, Robert W., Brauti, Peter M., and Fenton, Scott K.. 2015. Wiretapping and Other Electronic Surveillance: Law and Procedure. Toronto: Thomson Reuters.
Ibbitson, John. 2012. “How the Toews-Sponsored Internet Surveillance Bill Quietly Died.” The Globe and Mail, May 15.
Industry Canada. 2015. “Transparency Reporting Guidelines,” June 30.
Karadeglija, Anja. 2014. “Telecoms Don’t Give Out Customer Info ‘Willy-Nilly’: Bell Ombudsman.” The Wire Report, May 2.
Kerr, Ian. 2002. “In the Year 2000: Me and my ISP.” In Personal Relationships of Dependence and Interdependence in Law, ed. Law Commission of Canada, 78119. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.
Kerr, Ian, and Cameron, Alex. 2006. “NYMITY, P2P & ISPS: Lessons from BMG Canada Inc. v. John Doe.” In Privacy and Technologies of Identity: A Cross-Disciplinary Conversation, ed. Strandburg, Katherine J. and Raicu, Daniela Stan, 269–94. New York: Springer.
Kerr, Ian, and Gilbert, Daphne. 2004. “The Role of ISPs in the Investigation of Cybercrime.” In Information Ethics in the Electronic Age: Current Issues in Africa and the World, ed. Mendina, Tom and Britz, Johannes J., 163–72. Jefferson, NC: Mcfarland & Company.
Lawson, Philippa. 2011. “Bill C-12 and ‘Lawful Authority’ under PIPEDA.” Slaw, November 23.
Lawson, Philippa, and O’Donoghue, Mary. 2009. “Approaches to Consent in Canadian Data Protection Law.” In Lessons from the Identity Trail: Anonymity, Privacy and Identity in a Networked Society, ed. Kerr, Ian, Lucock, Carole, and Steeves, Valerie, 2342. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ling, Justin. 2014. “For Canada’s Spies, Your Data Is Just a Phone Call Away.” Vice—Motherboard, May 15.
Lithwick, Dara. 2014. “Legislative Summary of Bill S-4: An Act to Amend the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act and to Make a Consequential Amendment to Another Act.” Library of Parliament, June 11.
Martin, Michèle. 1991. Hello, Central?: Gender, Technology, and Culture in the Formation of Telephone Systems. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press.
McKenna, Alain. 2011. “Téléchargement de The Hurt Locker : Des internautes canadiens poursuivis.” La Presse, November 28.
Mediacaster. 2011. “Canadian ISPs to Deliver Customer Information in Hurt Locker Lawsuit.” Mediacaster Magazine, September 9.
MediaSmarts. n.d. “MediaSmarts.”
Miller, Claire Cain. 2014. “Revelations of N.S.A. Spying Cost U.S. Tech Companies.” The New York Times , March 21.
Molinaro, Dennis. 2017. “‘In the Field of Espionage, There’s No Such Thing as Peacetime’: The Official Secrets Act and the Picnic Wiretapping Program.” Canadian Historical Review 93 (3): 457–82.
Morin, Suzanne. 2011. “Updated: Business Disclosure of Personal Information to Law Enforcement Agencies: PIPEDA and the CNA Letter of Request Protocol.” Privacy Pages, November.
Neocleous, Mark. 2008. Critique of Security. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Nesbitt, Scott. 2003. “Rescuing the Balance? An Assessment of Canada’s Proposal to Limit ISP Liability for Online Copyright Infringement.” Canadian Journal of Law and Technology 2: 115–28.
Nevis Consulting Group. 2003. “Summary of Submissions to the Lawful Access Consultation,” August 6.
O’Brien, Greg. 2013. “Independent ISP Distributel Fighting Moviemakers over Customer Privacy,” February 14.
OECD. 1980. “OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data.”
Office of the Privacy Commissioner. 2014. “Metadata and Privacy—A Technical and Legal Overview,” October 30.
Office of the Privacy Commissioner. 2015a. “Any and All Records Including but Not Limited to Memos, Written Notes, Presentations, Emails, Reports & Correspondence Prepared for or by Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien Concerning the OPC’s Investigation into the RCMP’s Use of Warrantless Requests for Canadians’ Personal Information and the OPC’s Subsequent Report on Same from August 1, 2014 to November 1, 2014.” A-2014-00158.
Office of the Privacy Commissioner. 2015b. “Results of Commissioner Initiated Investigation into Bell’s Relevant Ads Program,” April 7.
Office of the Privacy Commissioner. 2017. “2016 Survey of Canadians on Privacy,” January 26.
Pacienza, Angela. 2004. “Cdn Recording Industry Begins Legal Fight to Stop Music Uploaders.” Canadian Press, February 16.
Parsons, Christopher. 2015. “Stuck on the Agenda: Drawing Lessons from the Stagnation of ‘Lawful Access’ Legislation in Canada.” In Law, Privacy and Surveillance in Canada in the Post-Snowden Era, ed. Geist, Michael, 257–83. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.
Parsons, Christopher. 2017. “The (In)Effectiveness of Voluntarily Produced Transparency Reports.” Business & Society.
Pollach, Irene. 2011. “Online Privacy as a Corporate Social Responsibility: An Empirical Study.” Business Ethics: A European Review 20 (1): 88102.
Power, E. Michael. 2013. The Law of Privacy. Markham: LexisNexis.
Public Safety Canada. 2011. “Summary of Public Consultation on Access to Customer Name and Address Information for Public Safety Purposes,” October 22.
Public Safety Canada. 2012. “Records on Government Consultations with Law Enforcement and Justice Officials Concerning the Negative Impact of a Warrant Requirement for Basic Subscriber Information.” A-2011-00255.
Public Safety Canada. 2013. “Correspondence from the Public on Bill C-30 from Feb 1 May 10, 2012.” A-2012-00301.
Rabideau, Monique. 1991. “Duarte v. R.: In Fear of Big Brother.” University of Toronto Faculty of Law Review 49: 171–85.
Rogers. 2004. “Written Representations of Rogers Communications Inc.,” March 12.
Rose, Keith. 2017. “SCC To Weigh In on Fees for Identifying ISP Subscribers: Rogers v. Voltage,” SnIP/ITs, November 24.
Shaw Communications Inc. 2004. “Written Representations of Shaw Communications Inc.,” March 10.
Shaw, Gillian. 2004. “Sharing Music over Internet Not Illegal, Federal Court Rules.” The Vancouver Sun, April 1, sec. News.
Singer, Leo. 2012. “Unwarranted Access?” National, June.
Singer, Marcus G. 1965. “Negative and Positive Duties.” The Philosophical Quarterly 15 (59): 97103.
Solomon, Howard. 2016. “Protect Privacy of Subscribers, but Don’t Stick Us with the Bill, CWTA Tells Ottawa.” Cartt.Ca, December 6.
Stoddart, Jennifer, Work, Frank, Denham, Elizabeth, Hamilton, Irene, Bertrand, Anne E., Ring, Ed, Bengts, Elaine Keenan, et al. 2011. “Letter to Public Safety Canada from Canada’s Privacy Commissioners and Ombudspersons on the Current ‘Lawful Access’ Proposals,” March 9.
Stryker, Sheldon. 1980. Symbolic Interactionism: A Social Structural Version. Menlo Park: Benjamin-Cummings.
TELUS. 2016. “Telus WISE.” Telus WISE.
Thies, Cameron G., and Breuning, Marijke. 2012. “Integrating Foreign Policy Analysis and International Relations through Role Theory.” Foreign Policy Analysis 8 (1): 14.
Thompson, Robert. 2004. “Shaw Won’t Breach Privacy to Nab Net Pirates: Music industry taking case to court.” Edmonton Journal, February 14, sec. News.
Toews, Vic. 2012. “House of Commons Debates.” Openparliament.Ca, February 28.
Valiquet, Dominique. 2011. “Legislative Summary of Bill C-22: An Act Respecting the Mandatory Reporting of Internet Child Pornography by Persons Who Provide an Internet Service.” February 15.
Woods, Allan. 2014. “Canada Courting U.S. Web Giants in Wake of NSA Spy Scandal.” The Toronto Star, January 9.
BMG Canada Inc. v John Doe [2004], 3 FCR 241.
R v Rogers Communications [2016]. ONSC 70.
R v Spencer [2014]. SCC 43.
R v TELUS [2013]. 2 SCR 3.
Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, RSC 1985, c C-23.
Competition Act, RSC 1985, c C-34.
Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46.
Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, SC 2000, c 5.
Protection of Privacy Act, SC 1973-4, c 50.


Internet Service Providers as Privacy Custodians

  • Mike Zajko (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed