Columns Archive

New Year Offers Chance to Hit Reset Button on Digital Policies

Appeared in the Toronto Star on January 3, 2015 as Time to Hit the Reset Button on Digital Policies

A new year is traditionally the time to refresh and renew personal goals. The same is true in the digital policy realm, where despite the conclusion of lawful access, anti-counterfeiting, and anti-spam rules in 2014, many other issues in Canada remain unresolved, unaddressed, or stalled in the middle of development.

With a new year – one that will feature a federal election in which all parties will be asked to articulate their vision of Canada’s digital future – there is a chance to hit the policy reset button on issues that have lagged or veered off course.

There is no shortage of possibilities, but the following four concerns should be top of mind for policy makers and politicians:

1.    The centerpiece of any national digital strategy is connectivity since ensuring that all Canadians have access to affordable, competitive high-speed Internet services is a basic pre-requisite for most other issues. To the disappointment of many, last year’s long overdue digital strategy included a connectivity target that ranked among the weakest in the developed world.

Its speed target of 5 Mbps is not even considered high-speed in some countries and the government’s goal of 98 per cent access means that thousands of Canadians will still not even have access to that speed. With the United States recently setting a 10 Mbps target, Canada should rethink its approach by at least matching the U.S. benchmark and setting a clear aim of 100 per cent coverage.

2.    The Digital Privacy Act, which was introduced in the Senate last year as Bill S-4, was supposed to be an easy sell and policy win for a government focused on consumer issues. It includes long overdue security breach disclosure requirements that will force companies to notify Canadians when their personal information has been placed at risk.

However, the dominant story of the bill has been the unnecessary expansion of voluntary disclosure of personal information at the very time that the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that Canadians have a reasonable expectation of privacy in such information. The government’s weak attempts to justify the changes have not convinced their newly-appointed federal privacy commissioner and with committee hearings likely to start in February, Industry Minister James Moore should use the opportunity to scrap the change.

3.    The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission will take centre stage early in the new year as it releases the results from several hearings, most notably the “TalkTV” consultation that will undoubtedly include mandatory “pick-and-pay” television packages for consumers. Yet the CRTC’s work on both broadcast and telecom regulation has been undermined by an outdated legal framework that artificially separates the two fields that are now inextricably linked.

As a regulator, the CRTC is not in a position to fix a broken system. Rather, it falls to the government to begin the process of creating a single communications law that better reflects modern realities. While that reform won’t happen before the fall election, it should begin to lay the groundwork for legislative reform with a comprehensive review of the current system and alternatives for change.

4.    Treasury Board President Tony Clement has been a vocal advocate of open government, last year releasing an updated Action Plan on Open Government. Yet the framework has rightly come under criticism for failing to address the access to information system, which is in desperate need of both financial support and legislative reform.

As the single most important part of any open government policy, ignoring access to information consigns the entire effort to failure. While Clement now says there is insufficient time for a comprehensive review before the fall election, there is no need to wait to inject the system with much needed financial stability and to establish timelines for a legal overhaul.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at or online at