Appeared in the Toronto Star on February 15, 2014 as Digital Strategy Finally Takes Shape With Federal Budget
In 2010, the Canadian government launched a consultation on developing a national digital strategy. Despite obvious interest from provincial governments, technology companies, and the public, the issue has languished for years. Successive industry ministers have rolled out various digital policies such as copyright reform, wireless changes, and anti-spam rules, yet a comprehensive vision and target for the Canadian digital world has remained elusive.
Judging from this week’s federal budget, the wait may be coming to an end. The national digital strategy will undoubtedly reference past accomplishments, but the latest budget features many of the remaining ingredients for a digital strategy.
The main issue of any digital strategy is connectivity and access to the Internet. The government has set a target of “near-universal” access to broadband, which it defines as download speeds of at least 5 megabits per second (Mbps), within five years. That is consistent with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s target from 2011, but at a far slower pace, since the commission talked about universal access by the end of 2015, not 2019. Moreover, the Canadian speed target is slow when compared to other countries, where the European Union has set a goal of 30 Mbps by 2020 and Australia envisions 100 Mbps by 2016.
In addition to broadband access, the government is continuing support for computers in schools and embracing regulation of wireless services in an effort to address ongoing competition concerns. Indeed, the government seems to be backing away from a commitment to four wireless competitors in every region, opting instead for a more aggressive regulatory framework that includes wholesale wireless roaming rules, mandated tower sharing, and tougher enforcement powers.
Beyond connectivity and access, the government’s digital strategy includes electronic commerce regulation, intellectual property reform, and a further commitment to open data.
Electronic commerce issues often fall within provincial jurisdiction (for example, online contracting), but the government seems to have identified several areas where it can play a role. The anti-spam legislation that takes effect later this year is the most obvious policy intervention, but the budget contains two more.
First, the government has launched a consultation on the collection of sales on e-commerce transactions. Its consultation document notes that it might require foreign-based websites to register with the Canada Revenue Agency and charge sales tax on e-commerce sales to Canadian residents.
Second, the government says it plans to introduce anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing regulations for virtual currencies such as Bitcoin. The budget cites a 2013 Senate report for support for the move, though that report does not reference virtual currencies. There have been some efforts elsewhere to address money laundering concerns with online currencies, but some remain skeptical over whether the concern is warranted.
On the intellectual property front, the government has already passed copyright reform and will soon also pass Bill C-8, the anti-counterfeiting bill that includes major reforms to Canadian trademark law. It recently tabled five intellectual property treaties that focus on the administration of intellectual property rights. The budget confirms the intent to pass the amendments needed to ratify or accede to those treaties.
The budget also includes new money to support open data initiatives. Open data, which refers to open access to government databases, has made real progress in recent years in Canada. The budget commits millions to a new Open Data Institute.
The actual Canadian digital strategy may not look identical to this – privacy and security did not fall within the budget but would presumably be part of a strategy – but there is enough in this week’s budget to provide observers with a clear signal that the missing national digital strategy may soon be found.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.