Digital Canada 150: The Digital Strategy Without a Strategy

Four years after the Canadian government first announced plans to develop a digital economy strategy, Industry Minister James Moore traveled to Waterloo, Ontario, Friday for the release of Digital Canada 150. The long-awaited strategy document identifies five key areas for policy development: connecting Canadians, protecting the online environment, developing commercial opportunities, digital government, and Canadian content.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) argues the release of Digital Canada 150 succeeds on at least three levels. First, it puts to rest the longstanding criticism that the government is uninterested in digital issues. Moore quickly emerged as the government’s digital leader after taking the reins at Industry Canada, promptly focusing on wireless competition, spam regulation, and now a digital strategy. After years of complaints that the digital strategy issue was Ottawa’s equivalent of the “Penske File” – all talk and no action – Moore has acted.

Second, Digital Canada 150 demonstrates that the federal government has been more engaged on digital issues in recent years than is generally appreciated. Indeed, much of the document is presented as a report card, with the requisite check boxes on numerous legislative initiatives (copyright and trademark reform, spam), regulatory developments (wireless competition), and program funding (rural broadband, digital media). The message is clear: the broader strategy document may have been missing, but digital issues were not forgotten.

Third, Moore’s document provides some guidance on future policy development. While there are few surprises, there is confirmation that the government plans to introduce private sector privacy reform, invest in rural broadband, introduce regulations on crypto-currencies, continue its welcome emphasis on open data, and push through lawful access legislation that has been framed as a “cyber-bullying” bill.

Despite these successes, Digital Canada 150 ultimately suffers from some notable omissions. For a strategy document, it is curiously lacking in actual strategy. The government updates Canadians on what it has done and provides some insight into what it plans to do, but there are few new strategies articulated.

Measurable targets and objectives typically guide strategy documents, yet there are not many to be found in Digital Canada 150. In fact, the most obvious target – 98 percent broadband access of 5 Mbps – is slower than many comparable targets around the world and comes years later than the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s stated goal for the same level of Internet connectivity.

Further, the document never links together digital policies with other government initiatives in a strategic manner.  The government has emphasized its international trade agenda, but there is no effort to link trade agreements with a strategy to bring Canadian business online to market and sell to a global marketplace. Similarly, Canadian foreign policy has adopted strong positions against authoritarian regimes, yet there is no strategy that combines that policy with one that prohibits the export of censorship technologies to those countries that repress free speech.

Digital Canada 150 is also largely silent on the issue of investing in the online environment. The recent spectrum auction generated billions of dollars in revenue, but there are seemingly no plans to directly invest the “digital dividend” on digital issues.

Most disappointingly, Digital Canada 150 lacks a big picture goal or target that might have made the whole greater than the sum of its parts.  There was no shortage of possibilities such as a national digital library to revolutionize access in schools and communities, a rethinking of Canadian surveillance policy so that mounting fears of widespread surveillance of individuals might be addressed, structural separation of Internet providers or a plan to join forces with the private sector to bring affordable access and computing equipment into every home in Canada.

These were the types of initiatives that might have captured the public’s imagination and put an identifiable face on a broader strategy document. Instead, four years of waiting has yielded a modest vision of Canada’s digital future that frequently focuses more on what the government has done than on where it wants to go. Moore deserves credit for bringing the strategy to the finish line, but given the remarkable possibilities created by the Internet and new technologies, many Canadians were likely hoping for more.


  1. David Collier-Brown says:

    We know how to do this…
    Rerun the “rural electrification” program, substituting “communications fibre” for “electrical conduits”.

    Imagine ho poor a country we would be if we hadn’t done a widespread electrical program. Small towns with no rivers would be using kerosene lamps and diesel generators.

  2. Those were different times. I think if the government tried such a program with fibre it would be stopped by industry because that would be unfair competition. We’re hooped now.

  3. I just had a read of the original document, and don’t see anything in there which is intended to address the oligopoly that’s holding us back. Canada’s digital future is going nowhere until that is addressed. We’re certainly not going to move away from our current third world status regarding speed.

    The report also doesn’t mention anything about moving government computers away from MS-Windows. The millions of dollars they pay to Redmond, and the lack of security that goes with it, is nothing but a sellout to US interests. The fact that the report includes an ad for US antivirus software (needed to make up for an insecure OS) is certainly bold, but that’s not the kind of bold we need. In that regard, I note that the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, with a population of over twice that of Canada’s, is moving their entire state’s information technology department over to Linux. This will save them millions and solve many of their security problems. Does Canada have the guts to not buy from a US company? No. Does Canada have the guts to make it’s digital infrastructure NSA proof? No.

    By the way, if anybody is wondering about the wisdom of migrating government IT over to an open source solution, Munich did it a couple of years ago and saved about $17 million. Now they also won’t have to pay future license fees and support costs will keep going down, instead of up.

    Without a workable plan to make Canadian IT and internet keep up with other parts of the world, or maintain any sovereignty, what is the point of this report? Sorry to sound so negative, but we’re going to have to come up with a more realistic strategy.

  4. Peter MacKay says:

    James Moore deserves zero credit.

  5. netflicks
    industry, services, government;
    it’s the cash flows that show the way. Netflicks (and other services, ie: EU web-sites) got big momma s’mothered by existing monopolies.

    Fink-world informers would be next as a cash cow (traffic lights) (profiling anyone?) but the apparatus is in the hands of politicians not commerce. (kinda circular, eh? Porn + gambling sites instead?)

    like high speed trains killing intercity airport traffic, a school-web with texts, lit, (comics. get real, they aren’t gonna read anything else.)

    school web will be an unsupportable burden after copy-right gets thru with it. (approved suppliers, full-price e-books and sterilized ‘facts’)

    instead of language school scams, (and universities where excel is a credit course instead of neural-nets + data mining)

    or connection universities (the french method)

    go real world and make it suggestion-only (cherry picking solutions from a student crowd-source.) like corel and others,

    if you can’t produce, you don’t get trained.

    nad make the red-book a stabdard rehab tool. You don’t pass, you don’t get back out on the street.


    welcome to the real world, eh?


  6. JimBobBalloo says:

    I may die because of this