Oct. 25, 2018

Research project looks at privacy law for the digital age

Law professor Emily Laidlaw receives SSHRC grant
Emily Laidlaw studies online privacy, and says we need to protect ourselves online.

Emily Laidlaw studies online privacy, and says we need to protect ourselves online.

Emily Laidlaw

There are many forms of online abuse. They range from non-consensual sharing of intimate images (known as revenge pornography), to harassment, hate speech, defamation, bullying and so on. What if someone posts unflattering photos of you online, or posts your personal information online without your consent? What if someone videotapes you in public? What if the video focuses on specific body parts? What options do individuals have to resolve these problems?

Dr. Emily Laidlaw, PhD, an associate professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Calgary, received funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) this spring to examine these issues. Her project, "Online Abuse: Developing the Tort of Privacy for the Digital Age," will clarify and develop the law of privacy to better address the privacy impact of online abuse.

Laidlaw’s project will be completed over the next four years. This project is connected to the Sensorized Societies research initiative led by Dr. Ken Barker, PhD, that received VPR Matching Funding as part of the Human Dynamics in a Changing World strategic research theme.

Her research focuses on the life cycle of a privacy claim, from reimagining the tort of invasion of privacy to redesigning methods of dispute resolution. “Holistic tackling of the subject is key,” says Laidlaw, “especially at the intersection of technology and privacy.”

In November 2017, an Ottawa woman took a condo developer to small claims court after a video of her jogging in her neighbourhood was posted online as part of a promotional video. In addition to having the video removed, she was awarded $4,000 in damages for breach of privacy. In a criminal context, a voyeurism case is currently before the Supreme Court of Canada. An issue is the reasonable expectation of privacy of high school students from surreptitious photos taken of their chest area in public or semi-public places.

“Technology strains aspects of privacy law that have always been challenging. Do we have a right to privacy in public? Who controls our public narrative? What are the responsibilities of the companies that host the content or design the technology?” says Laidlaw.

Digital tort law still developing

Laidlaw’s project focuses on the private law aspects of privacy. The area of tort law is still developing in many provinces and litigation is not always the best way to resolve these issues. Laidlaw asks: “If the goal is to reduce the amount of abuse online, what strategies, both law and non-law, best achieve this outcome?” In some cases, this might mean going to court, but at other times a technical solution, such as hiring a company to scrub content from search results, might be more effective.

Protect yourself online

Forty per cent of us have been harassed online, and that number grows to 76 per cent for women under 30. Laidlaw recommends users know their options.

If you have been threatened, stalked, harassed or intimate images have been shared, contact the police. If appropriate, you can try to connect with the person and ask them to stop the abuse, but that can be risky. Abuse violates many social media policies and the host will often remove the information and/or suspend a user. People can also contact Google directly to seek removal from search results if it violates their policies or is otherwise unlawful.

The pressures of our rapidly growing global population are driving unprecedented changes in our social, political, cultural and natural systems. The University of Calgary's Human Dynamics in a Changing World research strategy is addressing our need to understand how we adapt to rapid change, to ensure our security and quality of life.