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Election 2011: The Digital Policy Surprises

Appeared in the Toronto Star on April 24, 2011 as Federal party platforms all offer surprises on digital policy

Digital policies may not have played a starring role in the current election campaign, but neither have they been ignored. For the first time, all major political parties have devoted a section of their platform to digital issues and both the Liberals and New Democrats ran events focused on digital policy. While there is general agreement on the key issues – topping the list are Internet access and pricing, telecom competition, copyright, and the privacy-security balance – each party offers a surprise that gives some insight into its digital policy priorities.

The Conservatives

Perhaps owing to its five-year track record, the Conservatives digital policy platform is the least detailed of the three parties. Many of its positions simply re-affirm a commitment to stay the course – continuation of funding for rural broadband projects, the reintroduction of Bill C-32 for copyright reform, and vocal opposition to the implementation of an iPod tax.

The big surprise, given Tory emphasis on the economy, is the subtle shift from digital economy issues to digital security concerns. For example, the Conservatives have surprisingly little to say about the prospect of removing foreign ownership barriers for telecommunications companies or about their intended use of proceeds from the forthcoming spectrum auction.

Instead, there is a commitment to set aside spectrum for first responders such as police and emergency units. That spectrum is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and will require those agencies to find hundreds of millions more in order to use it.

Similarly, the Conservatives make a renewed commitment to grant extensive new powers to police in the digital realm. There is no specific reference to it in the party platform but included within a promise to pass 12 criminal justice bills within the first 100 days of Parliament are at least two of the bills that would facilitate police access to digital information.

The Liberals

The Liberal surprise is its willingness to stake out very detailed digital policy positions after several years of uncertainty. The Liberals have committed to using the proceeds from the forthcoming spectrum auction for digital policies, including rural broadband expansion and cultural funding. They are the only party to set clear targets for broadband connectivity. Their goals start modestly – universal connectivity at 1.5 Mbps within three years – but anticipate more ambitious speeds by 2020.

The Liberals have also provided a fairly detailed prescription for copyright reform, signalling changes to Bill C-32. These include support for expanding the fair dealing provision to include education on the condition that both “fairness” and “education” are more clearly defined as well as changes to the digital lock provisions to “allow digital lock circumvention for non-infringing purposes.”

The New Democrats

The most surprising aspect of the NDP position is its commitment to undo more than 10 years of Canadian Internet and new media policies. The NDP is the most aggressive of the three parties on the hot button issue of Internet pricing with a commitment to a full ban on usage based billing practices at both the wholesale and retail levels. When combined with a promise to rollback the 2006 directive to the CRTC to rely on market forces, the NDP would reverse longstanding approaches to telecom and Internet regulation.

The NDP platform also focuses on increased regulation of both Internet providers and online video services. Alone among the three parties, the NDP states it would consider requiring both ISPs and “over-the-top” video providers such as Netflix to contribute funding to support the creation of Canadian content. These policies would seemingly require reforms to the Broadcasting Act and force the CRTC to reopen its new media decision that takes a hands-off approach to Internet regulation.

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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