House of Commons Fails to Pass Privacy Bill; Legislation in Limbo

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OTTAWA - The Canadian privacy bill failed to pass the House of Commons before it recessed last month, putting its future in limbo if not in acute danger of dying.

Bill C-54, known officially as the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, was considered the centerpiece of the ruling Liberal party's plan to vault Canada to the forefront of the wired world.

Similar to the European Union's Data Privacy Directive issued last year, it would have established clear regulatory policy on how companies can collect and use personal data.

But with passage of the bill stalled, questions are being raised about the government's commitment to it. Industry Minister John Manley, the main champion of the legislation, is rumored to be in line for new duties following a cabinet shuffle expected this summer.

Manley, who has indicated the bill would be resubmitted for the House's fall session, said the legislation is not in trouble because the government had not set a summer deadline. Its goal, he added, was to pass the bill into law by the end of the year.

But some observers say it's anybody's guess how vigorously the government would back Bill C-54 with Manley out of the picture.

"We're not at all happy, not at all," said Gaylen Duncan, president of the Information Technology Association of Canada, which represents 1,300 firms that employ about 80 percent of the 418,000 Canadians working in the computer and telecommunications sectors.

Gaylen noted it took years to build consensus among government, consumer activists and industry, so it would be disappointing if it were for naught.

John Gustavson, president/CEO of the Canadian Marketing Association, said he's "disappointed and surprised that the bill didn't get a higher priority on the government agenda."

But he added that he's "pretty confident it will get back in and go through as we wished. Too much has gone into this in terms of building consensus for the government to abandon it. And it's important to the government agenda, both domestically and internationally. It has a lot going for it."

In the House, Bill C-54 came under heavy fire from the Bloc Quebecois opposition party, which introduced dozens of amendment motions out of concerns the legislation would interfere with Quebec's existing privacy regulations. Quebec is the only province that has its own Privacy Act.

It also faced criticism from law enforcement agencies, the Canadian Bar Association and the insurance industry.

Some of the toughest opposition came from the Ontario Ministry of Health, the Canadian Dental Association and the Ontario Medical Association.

They argued the bill should not apply to the health sector because it would create major inefficiencies. Ontario said it would not be able to create the integrated health system it is driving for under the privacy rules.

Proponents say that without restrictions, personal data would be vulnerable to abuse as it traveled the public and private divisions of the healthcare system.

The CMA had reservations about an earlier incarnation of the bill, but, following an intensive lobbying effort, it was successful in ensuring the act would protect consumer privacy and create a positive business climate for direct marketers.

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