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Reading the Tech Tea Leaves in the Fine Print of the Budget

Appeared in the Toronto Star on March 25, 2012 as Budget Could Have Implications for Technology Policy

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will unveil the government’s much-anticipated budget this week amidst widespread speculation that it will feature sizable spending cuts and significant reorganization of major government programs. While changes to old age pension eligibility, the CBC, as well as government departments and programs will attract the lion share of attention, the budget choices could have major implications for technology policy.

The government has telegraphed some measures, including an initiative to recast the National Research Council into a service focused on providing assistance to business rather than an entity emphasizing basic research. Changes to the NRC may be just the starting point as the budget’s fine print could include some important clues about where the government is headed on the digital economy.

One significant spending decision involves the renewal of CANARIE, Canada’s research and education high-speed network (I am a volunteer CANARIE board member).  For years, CANARIE has been responsible for cutting-edge Canadian networking programs such as ensuring Internet connectivity for every school from coast to coast to coast.

More recently, it has focused on meeting the networking demands of data-intensive research programs that would otherwise swamp the networks used by the general public. Beyond providing connectivity to researchers, CANARIE has begun to offer Canadian small and medium sized business a test bed and cloud computing platform to test innovative new services and there have been suggestions that it could use its network to provide linkages for local communities seeking broadband alternatives.

CANARIE operates on five-year mandates and is looking to the government to renew it for another term. The decision won’t be in the fine print – the cost could exceed $100 million over the five years – but the government’s approach will send important signals about how it views the role of CANARIE within its broader digital economy strategy.

The viability of the new anti-spam legislation, which is still awaiting regulations before taking effect, may also be determined by budget choices. Once operational there will be costs to run an anti-spam reporting centre along with the enforcement costs for the three enforcement agencies responsible for taking on Canadian-based spammers.  Without money in the budget, the enforcement side of the law may languish due to a lack of financial support.

The fine print of the budget may also determine whether another copyright bill is on the way. A new bill is expected to focus on copyright and counterfeiting enforcement, with beefed-up powers for border enforcement and customs agents.

Last summer, U.S. cables released by Wikileaks confirmed Canadian plans for an intellectual property enforcement bill separate from the copyright reform bill date as far back as 2009. The cable stated “the government has completed legislation to enhance Canada’s intellectual property rights enforcement measures. However, the government has no plans to introduce the bill in Parliament any time soon because no funding was linked to the legislation in the last budget.”

The bill is expected to grant customs officers new seizure powers for counterfeit products and may create a new national intellectual property crime coordination office.  Given the costs associated with these measures, the budget will need to include financial support for these measures or the bill may face further delays.

As with any budget, there may be additional surprises. These include the possibility of addressing plans for the billions in proceeds from the forthcoming spectrum auction or providing dollars for the open government initiative that has begun to take shape in recent months. Given the broad range of issues, technology policy watchers will undoubtedly dig into the details as soon as the budget is released.

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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