The Liberal party released its election platform yesterday and perhaps everything you need to know can be gleaned from the fact that Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault posted multiple tweets about plans for new cultural spending initiatives and Internet regulations in French without a single English language tweet. This is surely not a coincidence since the government’s digital policies have long been designed to curry favour in Quebec, even at risk of angering voters in the rest of Canada. Based on decision to forge ahead with Internet regulations with enormous implications for freedom of expression, alienating voters in the rest of Canada that have raised concerns with policies such as Bill C-10 is not a worry for the Liberal government.
Neither, it would seem, is the affordability of Internet and wireless services, which do not receive a single mention or direct policy measure. In doing so, the party has seemingly abandoned wireless competitiveness as an issue and unequivocally sided with the big telecom companies despite presiding over some of the world’s most expensive wireless services. The party platform is titled “Forward for Everyone” but not everyone moves forward in quite the same way with big telecom companies moving further ahead than Canadian consumers.
Moving ahead is also the theme of Internet regulation. The Conservative platform addresses similar terrain, though it repeatedly emphasizes the need to safeguard freedom of expression. There is a freedom of expression reference in the Liberal platform, but the actual policies tell a different story. The Liberals commit to reintroducing Bill C-10 and Bill C-36 as well as introducing online harms legislation and mandated payments for linking to news articles. The platform also promises to re-introduce Bill C-11, the privacy reform bill that went nowhere after being tabled last November.
The positions are not a surprise, but do raise several issues. First, the public concerns associated with Bill C-10 simply don’t seem to matter. The government has had multiple opportunities to address the legitimate concerns associated with the bill, but instead plans to double down, promising re-introduction within 100 days. Second, the government’s myriad of policy consultations on issues such as online harms and news payments – which are incredibly inappropriate during an election period – are just theatre given that the Liberals already know what they plan to do and have identified the policies in their platform. If the issues have already been decided, what is the point of a public consultation? For a government once elected on greater consultation, running what amount to fake consultations is shameful. Third, there is a clear hierarchy among policy issues, with Internet regulation at the top and privacy at the bottom. It is difficult to understand why the Liberals are so disinterested in privacy for which there is broad-based support, but the signals are clear: online harms and Bill C-10 within 100 days, privacy sometime later.
Copyright also pops up several times in the platform. There are two specific commitments: a new re-sale right for artists and a right of repair for consumers. The right of repair reform is long overdue and welcome. There are additional references to copyright protection, but without specifics. Those following the issue know that there have been multiple copyright consultations with the prospect of copyright term extension, website blocking, and an exception for text and data mining in support of artificial intelligence all on the agenda.
The biggest digital policy surprise of the platform must surely be the decision to avoid the wireless and Internet cost and competition issue altogether. There are references to rural broadband and spectrum use, but communications costs and the state of Canadian wireless has been a major consumer issue for years. In 2019, it emerged as an election issue with all parties making commitments to address the issue. To simply abandon wireless affordability is remarkable, sending an unmistakable signal that the Liberals have sided with the Big 3 telecom providers over the interests of Canadian consumers and the introduction of greater competition.