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Internet Service Providers as Privacy Custodians

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 November 2018

Mike Zajko*
Assistant Professor Department of History & Sociology Irving K. Barber School of Arts & SciencesUniversity of British Columbia, Okanagan,


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.

Copyright © Canadian Law and Society Association / Association Canadienne Droit et Société 2018 

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