Reflecting on The Liberal Digital Economy Strategy

The Liberals released their election platform yesterday and for those anxious for digital issues to occupy part of the policy debate during the campaign (myself included), we got our wish. The document identifies the digital economy as one of its three key areas for economic growth and features eight principles that includes broadband for all, bridging the digital divide, copyright, and an Open Internet.

At the start of the campaign, I highlighted ten digital economy questions that need answers and the Liberals have taken a good step at answering many of them. There is still need for greater detail, but at least they’ve put forward something to debate. By contrast, Industry Minister Tony Clement quickly tweeted that the Liberal document “borrows” from his digital strategy, yet unless I missed a press release, no Conservative digital strategy has been made public. There has been a digital economy strategy consultation, the creation of a government department within Industry Canada, a speech on a strategy that provided preliminary views, and elements of what will likely form the strategy (ie. open government), but none of these are the strategy itself. If Clement believes it borrows from his unreleased strategy, that only emphasizes how the issue is non-partisan and should be prioritized by all parties.

With respect to the strategy itself, perhaps its most significant aspect was the promise to use the revenues from the forthcoming spectrum auction to facilitate broadband access in underserved areas. In fact, sources advise that the commitments to fund CBC/Radio-Canada and the Canada Council for digital content creation will also come from spectrum revenues. Given that the auction is expected to generate billions of dollars, this is very significant. The revenues from the last spectrum auction went to general revenues (critics argue it went to the automotive industry). A commitment to use the spectrum revenues for purposes directly related to connectivity, culture, and the digital economy is an important step forward and helps ensure that new initiatives need not come out of tax revenues. It will be interesting to see if the Conservatives and NDP make a similar commitment.

If allocating spectrum revenues toward the digital economy was the most promising aspect of the strategy, the most disappointing was the failure to link its digital economy strategy with its broader policy platform. For example, the Liberals have focused heavily on education during the election campaign, choosing the issue as their very first policy announcement. The Liberal platform similarly focuses on education, with a large section devoted to its learning strategy. Yet despite the interest in education, the issue is oddly absent from its digital economy strategy (with the exception of digital skills training).  This is a missed opportunity – placing education within its digital economy strategy could have included taking a stand on education within fair dealing, on using its open government principle to commit to making government funded research available under open access, and to using research and education high speed networks to foster innovation and extended connectivity.

The absence of a cross-cutting approach is also missing from the issue of competitiveness and the digital economy. There is a solid proposal to help fund digital startups, a commitment to the open Internet, and a vague reference to “competition in a healthy business environment that rewards innovation.” I don’t really know what that last principle actually means in practice. It would have been far better to take a position on competition and innovation by taking a stand on foreign investment in telecoms (the government punted on the issue in the fall), on steps to address concerns with competition and Internet access (including retail UBB), and a position on vertical integration in the broadcast and telecom sectors. These are all key competitive issues but the platform remains largely silent on each.

Overall, the Liberal strategy is a good start that should help promote more debate on the issue during the campaign (though as an aside the intent to move toward online elections runs counter to most experts in the field who caution against it). The test will now be whether the opposition parties give the digital economy similar prominence within their platforms. As I noted in my post yesterday, over to you, Conservatives and NDP…


  1. Honestly? This sounds a lot like their last one with almost no changes. If I remember correctly. And I do have doubts that anyone will actually follow through with what would actually be good for digital innovation in this country.

  2. Michael, can you define for us peasants what a “digital economy” is?


  3. Jean-François Mezei says:

    Interesting that politicians all use “digital economy” instead of “information age”.

    There was the industrial revolution, and now it is the information revolution. There is a lot more at stake than giving everyone 1.5mbps because unless Canada develops its own information economy, we’ll be 100% dependent on other nations for search (google), email (microsoft, yahoo, google) etc. We’ll lose sovereignty over our information.

  4. @Chris A
    I’ve got to agree. A promise made during an election campaign has become of little to no meaning. All parties are guilty of this.

    And to make matters worse, I’ve seen occasions where the party actually carries through on the promises made during an election, and the electorate complains about them doing so (for instance, a number of the campaign promises made by Mike Harris in Ontario).

  5. Devil's Advocate says:

    RE: “digital economy”
    I have a problem with the term as well.

    Why does everything being discussed by our government have to be viewed from a *business* perspective, and from *only* a business perspective??! The last time I checked, the Internet was still an “information highway”, yet it’s constantly being suggested there’s some sort of “economy” contained in it.

    The answer to that should supply some “hints” to things such as why achieving net neutrality is such a “curious struggle”, or why filesharing was so quickly stigmatized as “stealing”.

  6. @Devil: “The last time I checked, the Internet was still an “information highway”, yet it’s constantly being suggested there’s some sort of “economy” contained in it. ”

    I’d say that it is a communication service that has become as important as the phone service.

    While years ago it was an optional entertainment item, now you *need* it from everything like communicating with the government to conducting a business (at least for connecting a Visa card reader to the payment processor).


  7. Devil's Advocate says:

    “important” does not spell “economy”

    Yes, a highly important communications medium has been formed. But, why would that signify an ECONOMY is contained within?

    I don’t recall anyone suggesting there was an actual economy surrounding the telephone or any other “service” when they became status quo.

    The term “economy” is completely non sequitor when referring to such things. To use it is to promote ignorance of the very meaning of the word. Think about it.

  8. @Devil: “But, why would that signify an ECONOMY is contained within?”

    Dunno, that’s why I asked for a definition of “digital economy”….


  9. Canadian Voter says:

    “And to make matters worse, I’ve seen occasions where the party actually carries through on the promises made during an election, and the electorate complains about them doing so (for instance, a number of the campaign promises made by Mike Harris in Ontario). ”

    You know it’s not that simple.

    You’ll probably never agree with every policy of the party you support, but you have to prioritize.

    I disagree w/ Libs on several issues but still donate monthly to them over Conservatives, NDP, Green.

  10. Anarchist Philanthropist says:

    Why do they have to do anything at all?? Why not just let sleeping dogs lye. Are these people so greedy that they need to suck EVERY penny out of us they can?

    The bourgeoisie never really did go away, they just learned to hide themselves better!

  11. pat donovan says:

    dig it eco
    for starters, I see nothing new on copyright.. which means the old news of monopoly control rolls on.

    the information economy can be defined by the reporting on radioactivity in canada.. ie: zero

    this is the third digit economy.. pay per byte/ single usage.


  12. Under the Conservative government, all our assets-natural resources, telecoms, banks, steel refining companies-seem to be up for sale to foreigners. Let’s hope the Liberals keep foreign ownership restrictions on telecom.

  13. Trademark Litigation says:

    Similar story
    Here on the The Next Web Canada we don’t usually talk about political strategies or election platforms. However, the following set of plans outlined by the Liberals will specifically affect your digital freedoms.

    The Liberal government has just released its plans for the future of the digital economy, which highlights eight principles such as broadband access and its position on an open Internet for Canadians.

  14. UBB is illegal says:

    The devil is in the details
    The liberals strategy is just a vague one at best. Who is going to benefit from the auction sales money? and who is “capable” of building networks to underserve areas? Is the new network a nationalized one with strict government control? FRANKLY, I think that the money will just go to some big telecoms, who will gouged customers EVEN more (the more they build, the bigger monopoly they have)… The liberals do not even address the AFFORDABILITY or fairness in the digital landscape (including cell phones).

    Why protect the Canadian telecom market when we are being gouged? The extra profit is not even going to the government but to executive pay. There are even layoffs. Aren’t protectionist schemes used to SAVE jobs?

    I would bet most economist would agree this is a classic failed market: higher prices with low quality networks.

    We need to open the market and open the market fast. Rural areas will really take care of themselves with foreign competition that are actually willing to build things like WiMax or satellite Internet. The government spending will just let telecoms become bigger with their inefficient technologies and prices which let the average consumer suffers as a result.

  15. @Canadian Voter
    I agree with you. However, in the case I had in mind we are talking about core party policies that they complained about the party actually introducing bills about… the kind of thing that should be expected. For instance a CPC supporter who complained about the bill to scrap the long gun registry (although that was a private member’s bill), even though that has been the party policy for years. Other instances include the policies introduced in Ontario as part of the “Common Sense Revolution” and the downloading to the provinces that occurred during the mid-90s as the federal government tried to bring the deficit under control.

    Please understand I am not saying that they should shut up if they don’t agree with the party line (although there are elements of all parties that say this)… However I don’t think the supporter should be shocked that, when in power, they introduce such legislation.

    At the end of the day my point is that, when it comes to Canadian politics, we love to complain; we complain when they don’t follow up on campaign promises, and we will complain when they do (although to a lesser extent). Whether or not we complain comes down to a single factor (in my experience). Are we personally negatively impacted by the action (or inaction)? If yes then we are likely to complain.

    @Mike: Not meaning to sound like a shill for the CPC, but the only 2 times that I’ve heard of where a foreign purchase of a domestic company has been refused under the foreign ownership review process was under the current government (for instance, Potash Corp last year and there was one about 3 or 4 years ago). Never heard of another refusal. However, there is a lot that could have come in under the threshold as requiring review… for 2010 this threshold was $299M. Is this too high? Perhaps, the 1997 threshold was $172M.

    With respect to telecom, things get a little confusing with respect to cellular; as I understand it, the foreign ownership regulations for the spectrum auction were different under the RadioCommunications Act than under the Telecommunications Act. We really need to get our act(s) together and figure out where we want to be on this file.

  16. Liberal promo ad on rural issues including braodband

    The devil is in the details but as a rural dweller I like the direction. The likelihood of a liberal being elected in my western riding though is as close to zero as being nil.

  17. Issues
    The Liberals are using the broadband-for-everyone issue to cloud the others. Yes it’s important to roll out broadband internet to the smaller communities and yes it’s a great idea to use the revenue from licensing part of the radio spectrum.

    But as Devil’s Advocate already brought up, there’s not a peep about consumer rights/protection. How about what’s going to happen to ACTA? What about other silly US stuff like ‘broadcast flags’ and the DVR you lease from the cable company doesn’t work anymore? When is something going to be done about excessive (multi-generation!) copyright duration? Yes, you can get out of international treaties – just make sure you have enough friends that secede at the same time. Right now, apparently according to the Liberals, there’s nothing wrong, thus it’s not an issue.

  18. @Mike
    What an incredibly short sighted comment. You and the NDP with its double speak are playing right along the telecom giants. An attitude like this will ensure the fat cats will have all the power they need to force implement UBB, sooner rather than later. But I guess you prefer me to rephrase it your way: Let’s keep Canadian Gouging… Canadian!

    As usual, consumers are shafted by the political class who govern us on the principle “we know best what’s good for you”. That’s why the fight is not nearly over and consumer groups such as has its work cut out for many years to come.