Responsibility by Nathan Siemers (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/4KZiPv

Responsibility by Nathan Siemers (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/4KZiPv

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Platforms or People?: The Liberals and Conservatives Outline Competing Visions of Internet Responsibility

In recent years, there has been growing concern worldwide with the privacy risks associated with mass data collection online, the potential for rapid dissemination of hate speech and other harmful content on the Internet, and the competitive challenges posed by technology companies – often labelled “web giants” – that are enormously popular with the public but which do not fit neatly into conventional cultural and economic policies. My Globe and Mail op-ed argues the Internet policy proposals contained in the Liberal and Conservative platforms offer dramatically different answers to the question that sits at the heart of these policy issues: who should bear responsibility for the potential risks that arise from the Internet?

For the Liberals, this is largely an Internet platform issue. Their policy proposals adopt European-style regulatory reforms that seek to impose a host of new digital taxes and online regulations. The position represents a dramatic shift from 2015, when the Liberals emphasized innovation, welcoming the economic and cultural opportunities arising from the online environment.

By contrast, the Conservatives, who released their election platform on Friday, focus primarily on personal responsibility. While the platform includes some new measures related to Internet platforms, the party largely rejects the global “tech-lash” that seems to have informed the Liberal position.

Consider the competing approaches to harmful online speech. The Liberals promise to introduce new legal requirements “that all platforms remove illegal content, including hate speech, within 24 hours or face significant financial penalties.” The policy, which borrows from similar rules in Germany, is intended to put pressure Internet platforms to more aggressively remove online content. The Conservatives do not propose comparable regulations. Instead, the party’s platform focuses on cyberbullying with plans to establish civil liability for parents and guardians for the cyberbullying activities of their kids. In other words, responsibility lies with people, not platforms.

The differing approach is also evident in their approach to online privacy. The Liberals point to their Digital Charter, which promises a host of new reforms including stronger enforcement, consent standards, and European-style rules. The Conservatives are also focused on better privacy protection, but they point to the need for plain language policies in order to obtain valid consent. The difference is subtle but important: the Liberals view better privacy safeguards through better regulation, while the Conservatives believe it can be achieved by better informed personal choices.

Even the much-discussed policy battle over “Netflix taxes” feature important differences. After years of rejecting new taxes, the Liberals are all-in, promising new digital sales taxes, a new corporate tax on technology companies, and a mandated contribution in support of Canadian content.

The Conservatives are clearly much more reluctant to embrace new digital taxes. The policy platform says nothing about either new digital sales taxes or mandated cultural contributions. In fact, the cultural policies instead talk generically about working in a “consultative way” to ensure that government policies adapt to the digital environment. The signal is clear: the Internet provides new opportunities to compete, not for new handouts.

Even the Conservatives’ one new “Netflix tax” comes with a caveat. The party also proposes a three per cent tax on large tech companies that provide social media, search, and online marketplace services (in other words, Facebook, Google, and Amazon but not Netflix). But the platform also notes that its preference would be for those companies to invest and further establish themselves in Canada. If they do so, the party promises to waive the extra tech company corporate tax.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the Conservative platform is that it does not touch on the affordability of wireless and Internet services. The party plans to rejig rural broadband initiatives, but seems content to leave communications services to the market and the existing regulatory efforts led by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Given the frustration of successive governments – both Liberal and Conservative – to address the wireless affordability issue, maintaining the existing approach does not inspire much confidence.

The differing approaches to Internet policy offer a somewhat unexpected choice with one party embracing regulatory solutions to the online platforms and the other placing its belief in empowering people with better information and personal responsibility. The best policies likely involve a combination of the two.

Privacy policies alone, no matter how easy to understand, will never fully replace legal safeguards and enforcement. Meanwhile, the evidence suggests that a competitive cultural sector need not rely on a suite of new Netflix taxes. Getting the right policy mix will not be easy, but it should emerge a top priority for whoever forms Canada’s next government.

3 Comments

  1. You missed the part of the Conservative platform where they advocate accelerating the implementation of CETA and the TPTPP. By extension, that suggests that, through the trade agreements, they support a copyright three strikes law, extending copyright terms, and mass Internet censorship among other things (not sure if even the people drafting the platform even realized this. Probably stuck to “trade good no matter what” thinking). Additionally, they want to strike a Cabinet committee to examine copyright laws and reform them as needed. Though that doesn’t say much in and of itself, the references to the trade agreements potentially suggests that they might be looking at just implementing the copyright provisions in those trade agreements.

    Otherwise, we seemed to have caught similar elements in both the platforms, though I’ve been able to examine every platform, not just the top two parties: https://www.freezenet.ca/a-quick-comparison-of-all-party-platforms-on-digital-rights/

    I’m admittedly curious to see what your conclusions will be for the remaining party platforms (assuming you intend on doing so of course).

  2. Yes, as Drew mentioned, the Conservatives have done this thing before under Harper. When it came to internet policy and copyright, there was, in my opinion, an improvement.

    But Harper and the Conservative party were also very much in favor of selling out the entire country to agreements like the TPP (and they still are). So, I see this as pure hypocrisy. They’ll set public policy that we could live with but behind our backs, they’ll sign agreements ensuring that such policies will be discarded.

    It’s a cowardly way of appearing to do the right thing while maneuvering to make sure the copyright lobbies get their way. And it gives them a out to avoid responsibility. They can just throw their hands and say “We had to because of TPP” and deflect responsibility for their decision.

    I can say many negative things about Harper but he was very intelligent. Awful but smart. It’s too bad the Liberals are taking this approach to copyright issue. It means we’re fucked either way.

  3. Prof Geist: How does one deal with jurisdiction, especially for smaller platforms which might not even involve a corporation anywhere? (Except for the hosting or peering or cloud service?)

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