Opening Up Canada’s Digital Economy Strategy

The federal government’s national consultation on a digital economy strategy is now past the half-way mark having generated a somewhat tepid response so far.  My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) argues the consultation document itself may bear some of the blame for lack of buzz since the government asks many of the right questions, but lacks a clear vision of the principles that would define a Canadian digital strategy.

One missed opportunity was to shine the spotlight on the principle of "openness" as a guiding principle. In recent years, an open approach has found increasing favour for a broad range of technology policy issues and has been incorporated into many strategy documents. For example, New Zealand identified "openness is a central principle of [its] Digital Strategy 2.0."

The consultation document includes a brief reference to open access for government-funded research, but it seemingly ignores the broader potential for a strategy with openness policies as a key foundational principle.  

Where might an openness principle make sense?

First, open government policies, including the use of the Internet to increase transparency and the adoption of open licences to government content to make it more readily usable and accessible.  Canadian municipalities such as Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, and Ottawa have provided leadership in this area in recent months and the federal government could use the digital strategy process to follow their example by committing to an open access approach to government data. [open government proposals at the consult site here and here and here]

Second, open access to publicly-funded research could be mandated throughout the major federal granting agencies. Many countries have implemented legislative mandates that require researchers who accept public grants to make their published research results freely available online within a reasonable time period.  Canada has emphasized research funding by committing millions to attracting some of the world’s leading researchers, yet it has lagged on open access and the digital strategy provides an ideal opportunity to catch-up. [open access proposal at consult site here ]

Third, the strategy could enhance support for open source software, with a clear government mandate to level the playing field between proprietary and open source software.  Earlier this month, a Quebec court ruled that the provincial government violated the law when it purchased software from Microsoft without considering offers from other vendors.  The federal government has some policies on point, but more can be done to encourage open source software adoption for the benefit of taxpayers and technological development in Canada. [open source proposal at consult site here]

Fourth, network open access requirements mandating certain openness standards in the use of the spectrum that is crucial for wireless telecommunications.  For consumers tired of the "walled garden" approach of some providers that use both contracts and technology to lock-in consumers, open spectrum policies would spur new innovation and heightened competition by facilitating greater consumer mobility and promote the introduction of new services not tied to a single wireless provider.

Fifth, open spectrum that reserves some of the spectrum scheduled for auction for unlicensed uses. While there is great potential to use auction proceeds to fund some digital strategy initiatives such as rural broadband deployment, reserving some of that spectrum for open purposes – much like wifi – should be another piece of the puzzle. [open wireless spectrum at consult site here]

Sixth, an open investment policy that tears down some of the barriers to foreign participation in the Canadian digital marketplace. While reducing restrictions is viewed by some groups as a threat to Canadian cultural policy, there should be ways to craft rules that open the door to new foreign participants but maintain many longstanding cultural policies.


  1. Hmm
    Perhaps this consultation is lacking in buzz because there is too much outrage around C-32, and all public focus is currently on that…

  2. Just to play devils advocate here…
    Open access to government funded research. How far does this go? Does a researcher who gets 25% of their funding from the federal government, and 75% of it from private industry, have to make 100% of the data available? For instance, the NRC at least used to solicit private funds to pay for some of its research. Since the salaries are paid for from the public dime, but the other expenses from private funds, does the sponsors have any rights to the use of the data? If they don’t, why would they sponsor the research in the first place? I could definitely see open access to 100% federally funded research, but I could see applying open access to split funded research as being a self-defeating policy (as the funding sources dry up).

    My other comment is about “but lacks a clear vision of the principles that would define a Canadian digital strategy”. Perhaps it is my reading of it, but this statement, to me, implies that there is a strategy and the consultation is about polling the people as to what they think of it. Leaving out the principles adds defining the principles themselves to the consultation. I leave it to the reader as to if this is a better or worse approach.

  3. No, it’s more likely that they just had a consultation last year on copyright and the overwhelming public voice was resoundingly ignored. People who responded to last year’s consultation, including myself, genuinely wanted to believe that our government was sincerely desiring constructive input for the direction that Canada ought to take – only to have those hopes utterly crushed when the rumors of what was to become bill C-32 surfaced.

  4. phillipsjk says:

    To be honest, I found their backgrounder to boring to read. It is all vague fluff like “Web 3.0.”

    I don’t even know what the term “digital economy” is supposed to mean. Analog technology will continue to improve as digital technology does (because digital technology relies on analog technology). Why would we want to base national policy on a buzzword?

  5. Chris Brand says:

    I think the private funding aspect would be quite simple – you want a monopoly on the results of the research ? Pay for it in full. You just want the research done (possibly so you can build on it), then partially fund it, with the rest from government sources. If the research is truly unimportant to you, don’t fund it at all. Granted, some companies may choose to fully-fund more research, possibly moving money that would otherwise go to partly-funded research, but so what ? That just means more government money to spend elsewhere.

    What’s wrong is what happens today, where we pay for research that then forms the basis of a monopoly.

  6. So far, this is what I have seen
    Digital economy is built on wrong premises.

  7. Public Fiber Networks!
    Great article!
    Let’s also not forget that all these ideas are useless if we don’t have a basic bidirectional public fiber network to let people interact and create new use case. Access to the internet should be a right and the medium should be viewed as participatory first, unlike cable TV.

  8. RE: Public Fiber Networks!
    Unfortunately fiber will never be run to rural and/or remote areas. Many Northern areas have nothing more than dial-up modem for a land-line and are unlikely to get anything more substancial in the foreseeable future. OK, there are celular AIR cards and satelite Interent which are unfortunately expensive to run and incredibly limited in bandwidth…AND AIR cards still won’t work in many rural areas which have poor or out-dated cell service. This leaves many with only satelite or dial-up to choose from and unless one really needs it, most would go with dial-up.

  9. TRON 1988
    Preparations are needed for number 3. Although Microsoft’s fiasco on stalling the acceptance of The Real Time Operating Nucleus (TRON) happened in 1988, could it happen here and now? Corporate greed knows no borders nor time.

    Moreover, do we want to waste time again participating in yet-another-consultation that led nowhere? Wait, do we want to waste time again participating in yet-another-consultation that led to the opposite direction?