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Election Could Shine Spotlight on Digital Issues

Appeared in the Toronto Star on August 1, 2015 as Election Could Shine Spotlight on Digital Issues

The launch of the longest national election campaign in decades will provide numerous opportunities to contrast the various political parties on key issues such as economic policy, security, ethics, the environment, and health care. Digital policies will also deserve some time in the spotlight. Topping the list of concerns include the post-Bill C-51 landscape, support for the Trans Pacific Partnership, and the prospect of a Digital Canada 3.0.

1. Bill C-51 and what comes next

Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terrorism bill, emerged as one of the biggest political issues of the year, with thousands of Canadians protesting against legislation they viewed as excessively restrictive of their privacy and civil rights. The bill passed in June, but not before all three major parties adopted distinct positions. The Conservatives unsurprisingly supported their plan with few amendments, the NDP offered the strongest opposition, and the Liberals voted for the bill but promised changes if elected.

Those positions open the door to a robust debate on what comes next. The Liberals have committed to repealing elements of Bill C-51, but leaving some of it untouched. What would an NDP government do? With a Conservative-backed Senate committee recently proposing additional reforms, do the Conservatives view Bill C-51 as the end or the beginning of legal changes to combat terrorism?

On top of Bill C-51 and its aftermath, the Edward Snowden surveillance revelations still loom large. The government has largely avoided discussing Canada’s role in global Internet surveillance activities even as other countries have eliminated some programs and beefed up oversight in response to public concern. A clear position from each party on Canadian network surveillance activities is long overdue.

2.     The Trans Pacific Partnership

The twelve countries negotiating the Trans Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade deal that covers nearly 40 per cent of world GDP, failed to reach a deal last weekend in Hawaii, yet the government has indicated that it plans to continue to negotiate during the election period. Some have speculated that the prospect of a finalized TPP  comes at the worst possible time politically since the deal will likely mandate major changes in the Canadian economy just as politicians are campaigning for re-election. Yet that is precisely why this may be the best time to put the issues squarely on the table.

To date, each party has offered carefully crafted answers on their general views of the TPP. Comments about “acting in the best interests of Canadians” or refraining from comment until the final deal is disclosed will not be good enough in an election campaign. As politicians go door-to-door in search of votes, it is time to ask all candidates and political parties about their views on specific TPP issues including copyright term extension, patent reforms, intellectual property enforcement, and domestic privacy protections.

3.    Digital Strategy 3.0?

The government’s long-delayed national digital strategy was released in 2014 with an updated “Version 2.0” quietly unveiled just before the start of summer.  The government made progress on several digital policy fronts, including enacting the Digital Privacy Act, anti-spam laws, and spending millions on Internet access in rural and remote communities. Yet the digital policy file is far from complete with Canadians facing higher wireless costs than those found in many developed countries and universal, affordable Internet access still years away.

Digital policy questions abound: are there more changes coming to the wireless sector to increase competition and lower consumer costs? Will the parties support programs that ensure both universal access and address affordability concerns that have left millions of Canadians on the digital sidelines? Do the parties have any policies planned to support Canadian content or to address the future of the CBC? Are new regulations over services such as Netflix on the horizon? Are reforms to the copyright notice-and-notice system that has resulted in Canadians facing thousands of demands for settlements forthcoming?

There is no shortage of questions on the digital policy front that require answers. With an election campaign set to run until mid-October, there may finally be a chance at a meaningful discussion about how each party envisions Canada’s digital future.

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

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