Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau released his government’s 2017 budget today and while the spending promises may be underwhelming for some, the documents sets out an ambitious agenda for digital policy review. In fact, with changes to copyright, patent, broadcast, telecom, net neutrality, digital taxes, fintech, Canadian media, and Cancon all under consideration, the coming year will have enormous implications for the future of Canada’s digital policies.
The budget does include several spending promises, including $13.2 million over five years to support an affordable Internet access program, $50 million for kids coding programs, $29.5 million over five years for digital literacy, and $14.9 million for digitization of Indigenous language and materials. There is also new money for the growth of artificial intelligence sector and the much-anticipated revamping of innovation funding programs.
Yet the biggest digital implications may ultimately come from the policy reforms. First up may be new digital sales taxes. The budget includes a commitment to extend sales taxes to ride sharing companies such as Uber, a move that seems likely to ultimately lead to a broader extension of sales taxes to digital services such as Netflix.
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The release of today’s federal budget is expected to include a significant emphasis on innovation, with the government revealing how it plans to spend (or re-allocate) hundreds of millions of dollars that is intended to support innovation. Canada’s dismal innovation record needs attention, but spending our way to a more innovative economy is unlikely to yield the desired results. While Navdeep Bains, the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister, has talked for months about the importance of innovation, Toronto Star columnist Paul Wells today delivers a cutting but accurate assessment of those efforts:
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The Canadian government has prioritized innovation as a marquee policy issue. There are signals that Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains will use the upcoming budget to overhaul the myriad of innovation funding and support programs that have cost billions of dollars with only a limited return on investment. There is no reason to doubt the commitment to innovation, but a national strategy must involve more than changes to how the government doles out cash incentives.
Yet when presented with the opportunity to address a core component of any serious innovation strategy – the communications sector that provides the foundation for the digital economy – Mr. Bains last week took a look at a market that the Competition Bureau found suffers from coordinated behaviour among the three dominant providers and simply whiffed. The decision to approve the merger of BCE and Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS) with only minor tinkering seems certain to increase wireless pricing for Manitoba residents and eliminate one of the few competitive bright spots in Canada.
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The Canadian chapter of the International Institute of Communications held their annual conference in Ottawa this week, headlined on Thursday by back-to-back appearances from Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly (in a question and answer session with Jennifer Ditchburn) and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains.
Both ministers spoke primarily about their key policy initiative, namely digital cancon (Joly) and innovation (Bains). Joly’s cancon discussion again emphasized the benefits of exports and foreign investment, but she also indicated that all policies are still on the table, including an ISP tax and efforts to bring Internet companies such as Netflix “into the system.” Joly was followed by Bains, who used his speech to sketch out the foundation of his forthcoming innovation strategy. His focus included universal, affordable Internet access and telecom competition (which raises real doubts about whether the government will approve Bell’s proposed purchase of MTS).
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Developing a national innovation strategy has been a top priority of Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. Bains has created an expert panel, held meetings across the country, and launched a public consultation in the hope of identifying policies that might enhance Canada’s lacklustre innovation record.
While some have used the consultation to call for expanded intellectual property rules, the reality is that Canada already meets or exceeds international standards. The more pressing innovation issue is to address the abuse of intellectual property rights that may inhibit companies from innovating or discourage Canadians from taking advantage of the digital market.
My technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the benefits of an anti-IP abuse law could be used to touch on the three main branches on intellectual property: patents, trademarks, and copyright.
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