How Canada Can Put Digital Consumers First

Reports over the past week have indicated that the government plans to unveil a “consumer first” agenda for its upcoming Speech from the Throne. The speech, which will set out the federal legislative and policy agenda for the next two years, is widely viewed as the unofficial start of the 2015 election campaign. 

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes there is little doubt that the battle over wireless pricing, which hit a fever pitch over the summer in a very public fight between Industry Minister James Moore and the incumbent telecom companies, will figure prominently in any consumer agenda. The government is convinced that it has a winner on its hands – consumer frustration with Canada’s high wireless prices suggests that they’re right – and will continue to emphasize policies geared toward increasing competition.

Yet a consumer first agenda should involve more than just taking on the telcos on spectrum (or the airlines over their pricing practices). A digital consumer first agenda should prioritize several other issues that have similar potential to strike a chord with Canadians across the country.  At the heart of those digital issues are two ongoing consumer concerns: pricing and protections.

On the pricing front, monthly wireless bills are only part of the high price Canadians pay for communications services. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has embarked on a review of wireless roaming fees, which studies have found rank among the highest in the world.

Broadband Internet services would also benefit from a more aggressive, consumer-first regulatory approach. The government previously objected to usage-based billing schemes, but its emphasis on facilitating competition through independent providers has encountered resistance in recent months. For example, some customers of TekSavvy, a large Ontario-based independent ISP, have been stuck for days without service as Rogers has been slow to address problems that arise from its network.

Inflexible and costly television packages should also come under closer scrutiny. The history of broadcast distribution through cable and satellite providers is one in which consumer interests were largely ignored. A consumer first approach would increase choice by opening the market to greater competition (eliminating foreign investment restrictions would be a start), mandating the availability of pick-and-pay services so that consumers could shift away from large bundles of channels they don’t want, and requiring providers to offer broadband Internet services without television packages, so that consumers can “cut the cable cord” if they so desire.

Lower wireless, Internet, and cable bills would be a welcome change, but Canadians also need better digital protections against online harms. The long-delayed anti-spam law, which provides safeguards against spam and spyware, should be brought into effect by finalizing the necessary regulations. The law has been delayed by intense corporate lobbying, however, it enjoys strong support from consumer groups and was passed by Parliament in 2010.

Consumers similarly require better privacy protections since Canadian private sector privacy legislation is now woefully outdated. Reforms arising out of hearings on the law that date back to 2006 died with the prorogation earlier this month, leaving Canadian consumers with a law that no longer meets international standards. Putting consumers first should mean that businesses are obligated to disclose security breaches and face tough penalties for violations of the law.

Canadian consumers would also benefit from protections against misuse of intellectual property rights. That includes safeguards against patent trolls that threaten small businesses and increase consumer costs as well as provisions to ensure that thousands of Canadians do not get caught up in questionable lawsuits over copyright claims that seem primarily designed to pressure them into expensive settlements.

A consumer first agenda is long overdue in the digital environment, where the interests of individual Canadians have often been forgotten. The next Speech from the Throne offers the chance to change course by promoting policies that result in fairer pricing and stronger online protections.  


  1. Why would Industry Minister Moore issue a report in July that says Canadian average cell phone prices are 40% cheaper than the US and, for the most part, about average compared to other developed countries. Then two months later he is running full page ads in newspapers across the country that say the opposite?

    Did he retract his earlier report or did he just his mind? Or perhaps he figured out are there more political points (i.e. votes) to be won by tricking Canadians into thinking he and Harper are looking after consumers best interests. Read the report and decide for yourself.

    I wouldn’t trust them.

  2. A likely scenario:
    1. A throne speech full of wonderful promises,
    2. Continued parliamentary dithering until the next election,
    3. Blaming the opposition at election time for obstruction.

  3. Here’s what a consumer-first agenda should look like…
    1. In order to correct Canada’s failure to protect the development of the Internet’s encryption that was entrusted to it by the world from the devastation by the US criminal surveillance agencies, Canada will now fund the development of real encrytion, educate its citizens on the use of anonymity and pseudonymity, install Tor exit nodes on all publicly funded computers in libraries and schools nationwide to make anonymous networks just as fast.

    2. Canada will enact a censorship-proof bill of rights outlawing domain-name seizures, deregulate Internet access so that bandwidth can be shared at will without liability for so-called “information crimes” like copyright, and recognize that an IP address is not a person, never was, never will be, and you can’t get “cut-off” from the Internet. (Think municipal wifi or your library’s wifi, not run by any incumbant media with financial interest in keeping quality of service on these networks sub-par.)

    3. No secret laws, secret courts and gag orders, no decryption orders, “parallel construction” of evidence, or blanket spying. Absolute power must not be allowed to enable absolute evil. That was the fundamental axiom of the new world. Temptation can be assumed and guards against it must be built-in from scratch with, for example, a “whistle-blower’s immunity” that would have protected Manning, Assange and Snowden, and the hundreds of others that this world so desperately needs. We must stand against all censorship, not just “some censorship – only the things we really don’t like”. That doesn’t work.

    These seemingly various issues are all connected to the one issue of the “open” Internet, a cause which has so far defeated SOPA and ACTA and has seen millions come out to protest despite it being a complicated technical issue.

    The lawyers are in favour of laws and the regulators are in favour of regulations, but the nature of information copying technology, the human nature to find and share information freely, the natural expectation of privacy, and the impossibility of positively identifying a guilty subscriber, the impossibility of assuring the legitimacy of ownership for a particular file, the legitimacy of a particular website, or of the legitimacy of a particular software used to open the file, all of these conspire to make regulating the Internet impossible.

    The CRTC has said this. Academics and network technologists have agreed. It is time to force politicians, lawyers and the media to give up their dreams of controlling the way information now flows.

  4. I object to being called a consumer
    I exchange information with electrons and photons – nothing is produced and nothing is consumed. I get enough electricity from the sun to power my electronics. I object to my communications being delayed because of someones faulty ideas about economic progress. I am happy to pay for each photon or electron I use for this while I am using it, but I expect to be paid back when it is released again. The tubes and routers are a drop in the bucket and have been paid for on the backs of my brothers and sisters time and again. I call phoney on this whole sham of consumers first. What exactly is it that the incumbents produce that we supposedly consuming? Roadblocks and Baloney.

  5. My wish list includes opening up direct online consultation with consumers and citizens. Having sort of like the petition page like the whitehouse has, where if a petition reaches a certain amount of signatures it requires the PMO to respond directly in a short time frame.

    Also have the minister of industry consult with consumers directly on issues such as telecom rather than consumers voices being filtered out by “special” interests groups.

  6. Nothing in the above goes towards building the networks of the future. This is the most important issue by far and this is where we all need to focus.

  7. Francis Pinteric says:

    Software Patents
    While it is great you mentioned the treat of patent trolls, you failed to address the greatest threat of all: software patents. Software patents are a threat to technological innovation not only here in Canada but also globally. These pseudo-patents, which patent trolls utilize most often in their extortion of innovators. must be outlawed. Some countries, like Germany and New Zealand, are doing something about it. Canada must also eliminate software patents.

  8. RE: Francis Pinteric
    Fortunately, Canada does not actually recognize software patents, at least for now. So there actually is nothing to eliminate at the moment (in Canada of course; the US is a whole other story).

  9. Francis Pinteric says:

    Software Patents
    @ EricL

    I agree, however there is the TPP which, as far as I understand it, does include a very conglomerate friendly, consumer unfriendly, copyright and patent regime include software patents.

  10. Francis Pinteric says:

    Sofrware Patnents.
    However, the Commissioner for Patents did issue a patent for Amazon.con’s ‘one click’ method of completing on-line forms which it should never have done.

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