User accuses ISP owner of reading and blocking her e-mail

PIPEDA Case Summary #2001-21

[Principle 4.3, Schedule 1]

Complaint

An individual complained that the owner of her former Internet service provider (ISP):

  1. Had improperly collected her personal information without her consent in that he had read her e-mails; and
  2. Was blocking e-mail she was attempting to send through a new ISP to users of her former ISP.

Summary of Investigation

The complainant had been a subscriber with a certain ISP for two years. During that time, she had had a disagreement with the ISP owner concerning her use of her account, specifically her attempts to transmit large files by e-mail. She alleged that during that disagreement the owner had told her that he could read her e-mails. She further alleged that, after she had moved to another city and subscribed with a different ISP, the same owner had begun to block the e-mails she was trying to send to users of her former ISP. The owner in question said that he could not remember any disagreement with the complainant, but he did allow that, on detecting a large number of "delivery failure" messages (indicating attempts to transmit large files by e-mail), it would have been his usual practice to call the user and discuss the matter. He denied being able to read anything other than "delivery failure" messages in relation to the complainant's account. He also denied blocking her messages.

The investigation confirmed that the ISP in question can monitor users' account activity and detect "delivery failure" messages, but does not receive e-mails or attachments and cannot read the content of users' e-mail messages. Nor was there any evidence that the owner had been blocking the complainant's e-mails from her new server. In fact, several weeks before the owner was notified of the complaint against him, the blocking problem ceased when a computer technician changed the Internet protocol address on the complainant's computer.

Commissioner's Findings

Issued November 5, 2001

Jurisdiction: As of January 1, 2001, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act applies to federal works, undertakings, or businesses. The Commissioner had jurisdiction in this case because Internet service providers are federal works, undertakings, or businesses as defined in the Act.

Application: Principle 4.3, Schedule 1, states that the knowledge and consent of the individual are required for the collection, use, or disclosure of personal information, except where inappropriate.

The Commissioner was satisfied that the ISP could not read its users' e-mails and had not blocked the complainant's messages. He also determined that a reasonable person would expect the ISP to monitor the services it provides and respond to persistent "delivery failure" messages. He found that the ISP in this case was not in contravention of Principle 4.3, Schedule 1.

The Commissioner concluded therefore that the complaint was not well-founded.

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