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Opening Up Canada’s Digital Economy Strategy

Appeared in the Toronto Star on June 14, 2010 as 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.  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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 or online at

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