As local politicians go door-to-door in search of votes and the national party leaders prepare for this week’s debates, the election campaign has thus far centered on each party’ s attempt to articulate a unique vision for the future of Canada.
With this in mind, Canadians should jump at this rare opportunity to turn the leaders attention to law and technology issues. While tax breaks and childcare naturally generate more headlines, a coherent, future-focused vision of the Internet in Canada will have a profound impact on education, culture, and economic prosperity.
As discussed last week, the Liberal’s have a lengthy, albeit unfinished record, as many policy issues stalled in the House of Commons or at the policy level.
The opposition record is even more uncertain. With a few notable exceptions such as Conservative MP Joy Smith’s vocal support for educational use of the Internet and NDP MP Charlie Angus’ commitment to balanced copyright reform, the opposition parties have generally avoided taking a stand on these issues.
While it is tempting to introduce a long list of policy questions (the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic has done just that at cippic.ca), presenting a vision for the future means focusing on the big picture. In this election, two big picture issues come immediately to mind – access and privacy.
Access speaks to several core concerns. First, the vision for nationwide Internet access – so that no Canadian communities are left behind – must be clearly elucidated. While the Liberal party committed millions of dollars this fall to broadband initiatives, other alternatives exist. For example, Macedonia recently announced plans to create a nationwide wireless network covering more than a thousand square miles. A similar plan would be unrealistic given Canadian geography, however the move toward free or low cost municipal wireless networks must be given serious consideration.
Second, this issue should also touch on access to knowledge initiatives. The Internet has the potential to tear down barriers to knowledge by embracing open access research funding that would bring federally-funded research into the hands of millions of Canadians, committing to the creation of a national digital library that could emerge as a critical cultural export, and promoting online access to knowledge in Canadian schools without unnecessary new licensing schemes.
The Liberal party provided some support for open access funding, but was non-committal on other access issues. The opposition parties should now take a stand on these critical policies.
Third, access also raises mounting concerns about the growing tendency of Canadian Internet Service Providers to limit access to competing content and Internet services. Over the past year, leading ISPs have used their positions as Internet gatekeepers to experiment with a series of troubling new initiatives.
These include Shaw’ s introduction of premium pricing for competitive Internet telephony services, Telus’ blocking access to a website deemed harmful to corporate interests, Videotron’ s characterization of third party services such as Skype as "parasitic", and Rogers decision to quietly employ "traffic shaping", thereby reducing access to peer-to-peer services. While ISPs remain comfortable with a self-regulatory environment, a vision of access may require legislative intervention to ensure network neutrality.
The parties also have an opportunity to provide a definitive statement on the importance they attach to privacy. Weeks before the election call, the Liberals introduced Bill C-74, the so-called lawful access legislation that mandates new network surveillance requirements. Do all parties share the same vision of an Internet in Canada with ubiquitous surveillance and easy law enforcement access to subscriber information?
A privacy vision crops up in other areas as well, including a commitment to introducing anti-spam legislation, which is desperately needed as Canada falls further behind its trading partners in addressing both spam and spyware.
Moreover, statutory protections against invasive technological protection measures, such as those hidden in some music CDs, may be needed as the recent controversy involving Sony highlights the potential for abuse of technologies that are often hidden from view.
Most importantly, a vision of Canadian privacy would serve as a guide for the upcoming statutorily mandated review of Canada’ s national privacy legislation. In light of recent disturbing privacy violations, the review provides a unique opportunity to introduce stronger privacy protections and increased powers for the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.
As the political leaders seek to convince voters that each presents a better vision of Canada, they should add technology to mix by articulating their own particular perspective on the future of the Internet in Canada.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.