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Michael Geist's Blog

How the Government Can Put Digital Consumers First

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 protections.  

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 mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.
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Back to the Drawing Board: What Wireless Policies Might the Government Now "Aggressively Pursue"?

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?


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