Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that Public Safety Canada expressed concern about the public safety and national security risks associated with lessening or removing foreign ownership restrictions in the telecom sector in a confidential letter to Industry Canada obtained under the Access to Information Act. While the claims are suspect – the overwhelming majority of OECD countries removed telecom foreign ownership restrictions years ago – it is worth noting that Public Safety, which was led at the time by Vic Toews, appears to have tried to circumvent a public consultation by sending two letters to Industry Canada on the same day. One letter was made available to the public as part of an open consultation process, while the other was labelled secret and only now released under ATI.
The letter obtained by Bloomberg, dated February 25, 2011, was signed by Assistant Deputy Minister Daniel Lavoie and addressed to Assistant Deputy Minister Helen McDonald. The secret letter contains quotes that include “the security and intelligence community is of the view that lessening or removing restrictions from the Telecommunications Act, without implementing mitigation measures, would pose a considerable risk to public safety and national security.” The secret letter also apparently adds that foreign ownership may hinder the ability to follow intelligence priorities set by the Cabinet.
It notable that Public Safety filed a separate public letter with Industry Canada on the same day. That letter, also signed by Daniel Lavoie and dated February 25, 2011, has been on the Industry Canada website for months as it was submitted as part of the consultation on the 700 MHz spectrum auction. The letter touches on the same issues, but does not contain the same language. The unequivocal warnings in the secret letter are gone, replaced by softer language that “increased investment could inadvertently pose national security risks.”
The Public Safety approach is deeply troubling as the dual letter approach may have been an effort to circumvent the public consultation process by stating one thing in a public consultation (which would be open for public comment) and another in a secret letter sent to Industry Canada on the same day. Industry Canada officials would know the real views of the department, while the public would be kept in the dark.