How Canadians Reclaimed the Public Interest on Digital Policy

The fall of 2007 was a particularly bleak period for Canadians concerned with digital policies. The government had just issued a policy direction to the CRTC to adopt a hands-off regulatory approach even as consumer prices for Internet and wireless services were increasing. Meanwhile, the Department of Public Safety held a semi-secret consultation on Internet surveillance where mandatory disclosure of subscriber information was assumed.

Moreover, the CRTC had largely rejected mounting concerns with the way Internet providers managed their networks (often called network neutrality), there were doubts about new wireless competitors entering the marketplace, Industry Canada had seemingly no interest in developing anti-spam laws or updating privacy legislation, the government agreed to participate in negotiations on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, and a copyright bill with virtually no user-oriented provision was being prepared for introduction.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that fast forward five years later and the CRTC has now positioned itself as a staunch defender of the public interest with consumer concerns at the centre of its policy making process, a lawful access bill was introduced in the spring but is viewed as politically dead, the CRTC has crafted and enforced new net neutrality rules, anti-spam legislation has been enacted, there are several new wireless providers and the removal of most foreign investment restrictions, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is discredited after being rejected by the European Parliament, and copyright reform is set to take effect this week with a host of user safeguards and rights.

While many remain skeptical, the shift toward the public interest in the development of Canadian digital policies ranks as one of the most remarkable policy transformations of the current Conservative government. The change is not absolute – Canada caved to U.S. pressure on several copyright issues, delayed implementation of the anti-spam bill due to corporate lobbying, and is negotiating new trade treaties that could undo much of the recent progress – but the state of Canadian digital policy is far better than anyone could have reasonably anticipated several years ago.

There are undoubtedly many factors behind the shift, but topping the list was the confluence of three inter-related developments.

First, Internet and digital policy issues went from niche issues to the mainstream since the rules associated with Internet access, wireless services, social media, user generated content, and privacy became far more personal with implications for millions of people. Digital policy may have once focused chiefly on commercial concerns attracting limited public attention, but the public has increasingly connected these policies to their own lives.

As a result, thousands of Canadians participated in a 2009 copyright consultation, more than 500,000 people signed a petition on Internet billing, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Europe to protest against ACTA, and the government faced an overwhelming backlash against its Internet surveillance plans.

Second, the Internet was not only a serious concern for many Canadians, but it also provided the mechanisms to ensure their voices were heard. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, blogs, and online video provided an avenue for Canadians to become informed about the issues and the means to speak out.

Third, the government gradually realized that missteps on digital policy could be politically costly, while good policy was also good politics. The payoff may be slow in coming, but the emergence of digital policies that prioritize public concerns leave opposition parties with less ammunition for criticism and the promise of greater competition and innovation.

Many have been quick to dismiss the public voice on digital issues, deriding Canadians that speak out as seeking a free ride, or being uniformed or ignorant of the complexity of the issues. The same groups often simply ignore those views altogether, as if the public submissions were just noise with no discernible impact.

Yet the Canadian experience of the past five years demonstrates a clear shift in approach with legislation, regulation, and policy outcomes that once seemed highly unlikely. The public interest will not win out on every issue, but its impact is evident throughout the digital landscape.


  1. Well said …
    For me the best thing on this issue over the last five years is democracy actually seemed somewhat to actually work! We live in a jaded age where the voting rate has been in a continual decline as people saw it to be meaningless to their daily lives.

    Recently, I don’t think there has been a more obvious example of the public influencing change in government policies than in the sphere of digital issues. In the US it was SOPA, the EU was ACTA and Canada Bill C-30. Not only have these poorly drafted laws been neutralized, but new legislative endeavors seem to have ‘seen the light’ or at least seen the flames.

    As mentioned in the article, digital issues today have finally moved into the public consciousness to the point where it is felt in the halls of power. The benefits of catering to corporate interests is now looking paler than to public opinion and the impact on the ballot box. The cynical view is that its all about politicians keeping their jobs, but sadly that is how our system of government works. While imperfect, it does eventually bring change in policy and direction. With the digital realm (for good or for bad) becoming more of an integral part of our lives, I am hopeful that these issues will remain front & center.

    Finally, is the public always right? Does popular policy make good policy? Certainly not always, but in this instance its at least a move in a direction that has for too long gone the other way. Hopefully a more open & inclusive dialogue will bring about more equitable fairness for all.

  2. Laura Cornish says:

    Credit where credit is due
    Dear Mr. Geist,

    I’m not familiar with your work but it seems strange to write this article without actually acknowledging the group that ran the campaign or its name, no?

    Laura Cornish