Parliament resumes this week with the Speech from the Throne today following the unexpected – and unexpectedly contentious – decision by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reset the legislative agenda through prorogation. The House of Commons may have been quiet but my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the calls for a national digital strategy have grown louder in recent months. Last week, the International Telecommunications Union issued its annual global measurement of the information society, which served again to highlight Canada’s sinking global technology ranking. Canada ranked 21st (down from 18th in 2007) in its ICT Development Index, which groups 11 indices including access, use, and technology skills.
Canada’s sliding global ranking reflects 10 years of policy neglect. Other countries prioritized digital issues while leaders here from all parties have been content to rest on the laurels of the late 1990s, only to wake up to a new, less-competitive reality in 2010.
Industry Minister Tony Clement has spoken frequently about the need for a national digital strategy, but concrete policies have been slow in coming. The parliamentary restart presents another opportunity for action. Given the failure to date to articulate a comprehensive digital strategy, perhaps a different approach might work. Following the Speech from the Throne and the budget, there will be about 100 days until the summer break. Clement could set a series of realizable targets during those 100 days. Such targets would not solve ongoing concerns regarding the competitiveness of Canada’s wireless sector or the findings that Canadians pay higher prices for slower Internet speeds than consumers in many other countries, but some momentum could be gained and some quick wins achieved.
A 100-day digital agenda could have four components: new laws, new initiatives, new enforcement, and new policy development.
On the legislative front, Clement should reintroduce the Electronic Commerce Protection Act, the anti-spam bill that passed through the House of Commons and was to have been the subject of Senate hearings earlier this year. Having received all-party support and extensive study, the legislation should be placed on a rocket docket with a commitment to passing the bill before the summer recess.
Two other long-awaited bills should be part of the short-term digital strategy. With the national copyright consultation complete, a digital copyright bill consistent with Clement’s commitment to a forward-looking, technology neutral approach should be introduced within the next 100 days. So, too, should a privacy reform bill, which Clement identified as a priority at the start of 2010.
Beyond new legislation, government can use the next 100 days to lead by example. A new data.gc.ca website with open government datasets like those found in the U.S. and U.K. should be easy to achieve. The government also could follow the Australian approach to solve the crown copyright problem that restricts use of government documents by adopting open licences that grant permission to use documents without formal approval (or the need for a new law).
The government can use the next 100 days to step up its digital enforcement agenda. This includes ensuring Internet providers are compliant with net neutrality requirements and that telemarketers abide by do-not-call legislation.
Finally, longer-term digital agenda issues must be put on the policy front burner. These include discussions on spectrum allocation, digital television transition, removal of Canadian control requirements in the telecom sector, and new media issues.
None of these initiatives will mark an immediate resurgence in Canada’s digital ranking. But after years of missteps, perhaps some baby steps now would put the nation’s digital agenda back on track.