Appeared in the Toronto Star on September 21, 2013 as How Ottawa Can Put Digital Consumers First
Reports over the past week have indicated that the government plans to
unveil a "consumer first" agenda for its upcoming Speech from the
Throne. The speech, which will set out the federal legislative and
policy agenda for the next two years, is widely viewed as the unofficial
start of the 2015 election campaign.
There is little doubt that the battle over wireless pricing, which hit a
fever pitch over the summer in a very public fight between Industry
Minister James Moore and the incumbent telecom companies, will figure
prominently in any consumer agenda. The government is convinced that it
has a winner on its hands - consumer frustration with Canada’s high
wireless prices suggests that they’re right - and will continue to
emphasize policies geared toward increasing competition.
Yet a consumer first agenda should involve more than just taking on the
telcos on spectrum (or the airlines over their pricing practices). A
digital consumer first agenda should prioritize several other issues
that have similar potential to strike a chord with Canadians across the
country. At the heart of those digital issues are two ongoing consumer
concerns: pricing and protections.
On the pricing front, monthly wireless bills are only part of the high
price Canadians pay for communications services. The Canadian
Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has embarked on a
review of wireless roaming fees, which studies have found rank among the
highest in the world.
Broadband Internet services would also benefit from a more aggressive,
consumer-first regulatory approach. The government previously objected
to usage-based billing schemes, but its emphasis on facilitating
competition through independent providers has encountered resistance in
recent months. For example, some customers of TekSavvy, a large
Ontario-based independent ISP, have been stuck for days without service
as Rogers has been slow to address problems that arise from its network.
Inflexible and costly television packages should also come under closer
scrutiny. The history of broadcast distribution through cable and
satellite providers is one in which consumer interests were largely
ignored. A consumer first approach would increase choice by opening the
market to greater competition (eliminating foreign investment
restrictions would be a start), mandating the availability of
pick-and-pay services so that consumers could shift away from large
bundles of channels they don’t want, and requiring providers to offer
broadband Internet services without television packages, so that
consumers can "cut the cable cord" if they so desire.
Lower wireless, Internet, and cable bills would be a welcome change, but
Canadians also need better digital protections against online harms.
The long-delayed anti-spam law, which provides safeguards against spam
and spyware, should be brought into effect by finalizing the necessary
regulations. The law has been delayed by intense corporate lobbying,
however, it enjoys strong support from consumer groups and was passed by
Parliament in 2010.
Consumers similarly require better privacy protections since Canadian
private sector privacy legislation is now woefully outdated. Reforms
arising out of hearings on the law that date back to 2006 died with the
prorogation earlier this month, leaving Canadian consumers with a law
that no longer meets international standards. Putting consumers first
should mean that businesses are obligated to disclose security breaches
and face tough penalties for violations of the law.
Canadian consumers would also benefit from protections against misuse of
intellectual property rights. That includes safeguards against patent
trolls that threaten small businesses and increase consumer costs as
well as provisions to ensure that thousands of Canadians do not get
caught up in questionable lawsuits over copyright claims that seem
primarily designed to pressure them into expensive settlements.
A consumer first agenda is long overdue in the digital environment,
where the interests of individual Canadians have often been forgotten.
The next Speech from the Throne offers the chance to change course by
promoting policies that result in fairer pricing and stronger online
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.TagsShareTuesday September 24, 2013
Industry Canada released the names of the bidders
for its forthcoming spectrum auction yesterday with the disappointing
news that no major new entrants will be using the auction to enter the
Canadian market. That is rightly viewed as a big win
for the incumbents, who should have little trouble acquiring the
spectrum they want in the upcoming auction and will not face any new
competition from deep-pocketed global wireless players. Instead, despite
the persistent efforts of the federal government to convince new
competitors to enter the market, the Big 3 will continue to dominate
Canadian wireless services for the foreseeable future. With prices high
by global standards and mobile broadband penetration lagging compared to
other countries (an ITU study
released over the weekend ranked Canada 32nd worldwide for mobile
broadband penetration), consumers are the immediate and obvious loser
for the moment.
Yet the incumbent victory did not come easily, coming at the cost of a
scorched-earth public relations war with the federal government that the
incumbents are already trying to downplay.
However, having failed to address market concerns through new
competitors, it may now fall to the government to shake things up
through increased regulation. There are no shortage of options, with two
big steps (the consumer wireless code that limits contract length and
potential CRTC regulation of wireless roaming pricing) already underway.
After yesterday's release, Industry Minister Moore stated
that "in addition to this auction, our Government will continue to
aggressively pursue policies that ensure consumer interests are at the
core of all Government decisions."
What policies might Minister Moore have in mind?
TagsShareTuesday September 24, 2013