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    Canadian Digital Strategy Takes Shape With 2014 Budget

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    Saturday February 15, 2014
    Appeared in the Toronto Star on February 15, 2014 as Digital Strategy Finally Takes Shape With Federal Budget

    In 2010, the Canadian government launched a consultation on developing a national digital strategy. Despite obvious interest from provincial governments, technology companies, and the public, the issue has languished for years. Successive industry ministers have rolled out various digital policies such as copyright reform, wireless changes, and anti-spam rules, yet a comprehensive vision and target for the Canadian digital world has remained elusive.

    Judging from this week’s federal budget, the wait may be coming to an end. The national digital strategy will undoubtedly reference past accomplishments, but the latest budget features many of the remaining ingredients for a digital strategy.

    The main issue of any digital strategy is connectivity and access to the Internet.  The government has set a target of "near-universal" access to broadband, which it defines as download speeds of at least 5 megabits per second (Mbps), within five years. That is consistent with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s target from 2011, but at a far slower pace, since the commission talked about universal access by the end of 2015, not 2019.  Moreover, the Canadian speed target is slow when compared to other countries, where the European Union has set a goal of 30 Mbps by 2020 and Australia envisions 100 Mbps by 2016.

    In addition to broadband access, the government is continuing support for computers in schools and embracing regulation of wireless services in an effort to address ongoing competition concerns. Indeed, the government seems to be backing away from a commitment to four wireless competitors in every region, opting instead for a more aggressive regulatory framework that includes wholesale wireless roaming rules, mandated tower sharing, and tougher enforcement powers.

    Beyond connectivity and access, the government’s digital strategy includes electronic commerce regulation, intellectual property reform, and a further commitment to open data.

    Electronic commerce issues often fall within provincial jurisdiction (for example, online contracting), but the government seems to have identified several areas where it can play a role. The anti-spam legislation that takes effect later this year is the most obvious policy intervention, but the budget contains two more.

    First, the government has launched a consultation on the collection of sales on e-commerce transactions. Its consultation document notes that it might require foreign-based websites to register with the Canada Revenue Agency and charge sales tax on e-commerce sales to Canadian residents.

    Second, the government says it plans to introduce anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing regulations for virtual currencies such as Bitcoin. The budget cites a 2013 Senate report for support for the move, though that report does not reference virtual currencies. There have been some efforts elsewhere to address money laundering concerns with online currencies, but some remain skeptical over whether the concern is warranted.

    On the intellectual property front, the government has already passed copyright reform and will soon also pass Bill C-8, the anti-counterfeiting bill that includes major reforms to Canadian trademark law. It recently tabled five intellectual property treaties that focus on the administration of intellectual property rights. The budget confirms the intent to pass the amendments needed to ratify or accede to those treaties.

    The budget also includes new money to support open data initiatives. Open data, which refers to open access to government databases, has made real progress in recent years in Canada. The budget commits millions to a new Open Data Institute.

    The actual Canadian digital strategy may not look identical to this - privacy and security did not fall within the budget but would presumably be part of a strategy - but there is enough in this week’s budget to provide observers with a clear signal that the missing national digital strategy may soon be found.

    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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    It's (Almost) Here: Why the Canadian Digital Strategy Takes Shape With Budget 2014

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    Wednesday February 12, 2014
    Nearly two years ago, I wrote a post about how the Canadian digital economy strategy seemed to be taking shape. The government had moved on several legislative issues including copyright and spam, it was bringing together federal and provincial ministers to discuss the issue, the open government initiative was on the way, and telecom policy was beginning to emerge as a major concern. All that was missing was an announcement, identification of some targets, and the signal that this was a priority. While I'm told that some in government also saw it this way, then-Industry Minister Christian Paradis let the moment slip away and the entire digital strategy become little more than a punchline.

    Yesterday's federal budget marks the revival of the Canadian digital strategy. The government will undoubtedly still point to past accomplishments (the budget references reforms that date back to the 2006, so digital economy activities from several years ago are surely fair game), but this budget provides many of the remaining ingredients for a digital strategy (Mark Goldberg offers a similar perspective). Once again, all that is left is missing is the official announcement from Industry Minister James Moore. So what will the Canadian digital strategy contain? Based on this budget, it would seem to include:

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    ITU Report Says Canada Slipped to 26th Worldwide in ICT Development Index

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    Friday September 16, 2011
    The International Telecommunications Union yesterday released its Measuring the Information Society 2011 report, which benchmarks information society developments worldwide.  The centrepiece of the report is the ICT Development Index, which tracks 11 different indicators focused on access, use, and skills (the eleven indicators are: fixed telephone line subscriptions, mobile subscriptions, international Internet bandwidth, households with a computer, households with Internet access, percentage of individuals using the Internet, broadband subscriptions, mobile broadband subscriptions, adult literacy, secondary and tertiary enrolment). Among the indicators, skills are worth 20 percent, while access and use count for 40 percent each. The news for Canada was not good as we fell from 20th in 2008 (the last time the ITU issued its report) to 26th worldwide today. Topping the list was South Korea, but Canada finds itself behind much of Europe, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and several other Asian countries. 

    While the National Post's Terence Corcoran tries to cherry pick  one indicator - Internet use - to argue that the report shows Canada as a leader, he actually gets it wrong as the report shows Canada in 13th spot, not 2nd as he suggests (pages 154-55 of the report provides the full breakdown showing Canada behind South Korea, the UK, New Zealand, the Netherlands among others). Canada's rank on the access and use indicators:

    Canada's Rank
    Percentage of individuals using the Internet
    Fixed broadband Internet subscriptions per 100 inhabitants
    Active mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants
    Fixed telephone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants
    Mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants
    International Internet bandwidth Bit/s per Internet user
    Percentage of households with computer
    Percentage of households with Internet

    It is hard to see how anyone can look at these results and conclude that Canada is a leader in ICT development. Canada ranks outside the top ten in every indicator and an incredible 111th on mobile subscriptions and 57th on mobile broadband. The reality is that virtually every neutral survey or study over the past several years has had other countries leapfrogging ahead of Canada as we reap the results of a missing national digital strategy, restrictions on foreign investment, and ongoing competitive concerns.

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    Digital Strategy Consultation's Unasked Questions: Who Leads? Who Pays?

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    Monday May 17, 2010
    Last week Industry Minister Tony Clement unveiled the government’s much-anticipated Digital Economy Strategy consultation.  My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the consultation is slated to run for two months and includes an online forum, face-to-face meetings, and a 40-page document that sets out key areas of concern. Five areas for discussion are identified: capacity to innovate, building a world-class digital infrastructure, growing the ICT industry, creating digital content, and building digital skills.

    Skeptics will argue that the consultation is long overdue or perhaps even comes too late. Canada has inarguably lost considerable ground in comparison with many other countries around the world that were quicker to identify and implement digital strategies. While the delays have been marked by a gradual hollowing-out of the Canadian tech sector and sliding global rankings on network and wireless connectivity, Clement has firmly established himself as the most committed Industry Minister on digital issues since John Manley in the late 1990s.

    Prioritizing digital issues is a first step toward remedying the situation, but a decade worth of policy neglect will not be solved overnight.  Despite lingering doubts about whether the government is listening - many Canadians fear that last summer’s copyright consultation may be largely ignored - those concerned with Canada’s digital future can ill-afford to stay silent on the sidelines. I hope to address some of the substantive questions raised by the consultation in a future column, but the more immediate concern are two unasked questions that cut across all issues - who will lead the strategy and how will the government pay for it.

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