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Parties the same? Not on tech issues

Surprising answers emerge from surveys With much at stake, there's little debate

With the federal election now just one week away, millions of voters are sizing up the national parties' positions on a wide range of issues. For those interested in technology law and policy issues — including copyright, spam, and privacy — the election campaign has been a disappointment as technology policy has barely registered on the election-issue radar.


While it may be understandable for technology policy to take a back seat to health care, national defence, and tax policy, an election campaign would be an ideal time to generate discussion and learn about positions on issues that typically stir debate throughout the year.


In recent weeks several groups have tried to capture the attention of the national parties and local candidates by posing questions on technology law policy and posting the responses online. The Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) at the University of Ottawa, online at, distributed a questionnaire to each national party covering key copyright policies issues including positions on music file sharing and Internet service provider liability as well as on spam, the use of open source software, and national ID cards (in the interests of full disclosure it should be noted that I am a faculty adviser to CIPPIC).


Similarly, Digital-Copyright Canada, a user and creator group, posed similar copyright questions ( to each local candidate across the country, while the Canadian Teachers' Federation asked each party for their views on copyright issues of concern to the education community.


With responses in hand from four of the five major political parties, different visions of Canadian technology law policy have begun to emerge.


The Liberal party sits squarely in the middle on these issues. Although the party's response speaks predominantly in generalities on copyright matters, it is revealing as much for what it says as what it does not.


First, the party pointed to the controversial blank-media levy as evidence it has worked to ensure Canada's copyright policy is modern and progressive, a surprising illustration given the opposition to the levy from a broad range of stakeholders.


Second, while the party noted the ongoing copyright reform process, it tellingly made no mention of the recent Canadian Heritage committee copyright report, perhaps seeking to distance itself from the report's recommendations. The committee, chaired by Toronto-area Liberal MP Sarmite Bulte, has drawn the ire of educators, Internet service providers, and copyright experts for adopting a one-sided perspective that fails to account for the interests of all copyright stakeholders.


Ms. Bulte herself offered a spirited endorsement of her committee's recommendations just days before the election call, concluding that the exceptions proposed by groups such as the Canadian education community to facilitate the use of the Internet within our schools was the wrong approach, characterizing such exceptions as leading to "freebies." Given the Liberal emphasis on education, its move away from Ms. Bulte's position may foreshadow a reconsideration of the recommendations should it form the new government.


The Liberal party also responded to questions surrounding spam and proposals for a national ID card. The party noted that its anti-spam action plan, which includes a review of current legislation and non-legal measures, was launched last month. Further, the party expressed reservations about moving forward on a national ID card, acknowledging the privacy and cost concerns raised by critics.


Sitting on one side of the Liberal party position was the NDP and the Bloc Québécois. Both parties issued responses late last week that offered firm support for the Heritage Committee's report. The NDP endorsed the Committee's recommendations on swift ratification of the controversial WIPO Internet treaties, and even more surprisingly, it gave its approval to an extended licensing scheme for educational materials, despite the heated opposition from the education community.


The NDP's position on non-copyright issues was less controversial as the party indicated that it had not formed an opinion on the use of open source software nor did it provide a policy prescription for addressing the spam problem.


The Bloc Québécois offered similar support for the Heritage Committee's report. In fact, the party went even further by also supporting the government's action plan on spam.


The Conservative Party and the Green Party sit on the opposite side of the spectrum. Although the Conservatives did not supply a formal response from its national headquarters, several local candidates provided individual responses that were largely consistent with one another.


Jurij Kluffas, a Conservative candidate in Toronto's Parkdale-High Park riding, and Mike Murphy, a Conservative candidate in the Ottawa Centre riding, both responded to the CIPPIC questionnaire. Each offered a dramatically different perspective on copyright and technology issues than did the NDP and Bloc Québécois by rejecting the Heritage Committee's recommendations.


For example, both candidates indicated that they support an education exception that would allow schools to freely use publicly available materials. They similarly rejected the Bulte committee's recommendation on Internet service provider liability and its recommended approach to removing allegedly infringing content from the Internet.


Both candidates also called for a more aggressive approach on spam, arguing that the Liberal government has not done enough to deter Canadian spammers.


The Green Party's policy responses offered some creative solutions that were more closely aligned with the approaches advocated by the Conservative candidates.


The fledgling party rejected controls over lawful devices, a position that would move Canada away from the U.S. style copyright reform supported by the Heritage Committee. The party opposes the notice-and-takedown system recommended by the Heritage Committee, arguing that copyright infringement questions should rest with the courts.


The Green Party also offered the strongest endorsement of open source software, committing to only acquiring computer systems built upon open standards and protocols.


While each party has sought to distinguish itself from its rivals on headline issues such as health care and taxation, technology law policy offers an intriguing point of comparison. There are clearly differences of opinion among the national political parties, suggesting that next week's election will have a significant impact on the shape and scope of Canada's future copyright, privacy, and spam policies.

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