Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault was recently asked about his plans to mandate licensing of links to news articles on social-media sites such as Facebook. While the policy is often referred to as a link tax, Mr. Guilbeault insisted that it was not a tax, stating “some people think every time the government acts, it’s a tax. What I’m working on has nothing to do with tax.” Instead of a government tax scheme, Mr. Guilbeault explained that he intends to have the Copyright Board of Canada set a fee for the links to articles, backed by government power to levy fines for non-payment.
Leaving aside the semantic debate over what constitutes a government tax, my Globe and Mail op-ed argues that the comments are notable because when it comes to addressing the concerns associated with the large technology companies, Canada should be working on taxation. Mr. Guilbeault has said his top legislative priority is to “get money from web giants,” yet rather than focusing on conventional tax policy, his preference is to entrench cross-subsidy programs that keep the money out of general tax revenues and instead allow for direct support to pet projects and favoured sectors.
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In the months before the coronavirus outbreak, numerous governments around the world enthusiastically jumped on the “regulate tech” train. Digital tax proposals, content regulation requirements, national digital spending mandates, as well as new privacy and data governance rules were viewed by many as essential to respond to the increasing power and influence of digital giants such as Google, Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon.
My Globe and Mail op-ed notes the pandemic has not only sparked a massive shift in economic and health policy priorities, but it is also likely to reorient our views of the tech sector. Companies that only months ago were regarded as a threat are now integral to the delivery of medical equipment, critical to the continuing function of workplaces in a work-from-home world, and the platforms for online education for millions of students. Billions of people rely on the sector for entertainment, communication with friends and family, and as the gateway to health information.
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This week’s report that Canada is an outlier on wireless services with carriers generating more revenue per SIM than carriers in other countries and Canadian consumers on the low end of data usage, represents the latest in a long line of similar independent reports that confirm Canada’s status as a high-cost, low usage wireless market. Indeed, a government-commissioned comparative study, CRTC data, OECD data, and Rewheel Research all tell a similar story. Given that there is little to debate about the state of Canadian wireless pricing, the big question is now what Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains is prepared to do about it.
A new book from long-time Rogers executive Phil Lind provides insights into the backlash that any significant efforts to inject more competition into the market is likely to face from the incumbent carriers. The book contains several pages recounting the carrier battle in 2013 against Verizon entering the Canadian market with the active support of the then-Harper government. The story pulls back the curtain on lobbying efforts that involve active coordination by top tier executives at each company, active lobbying of MPs, journalists, and market analysts, as well as advertising campaigns designed to fight back against market-opening policy measures. Lind starts the story:
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Bell announced plans this morning to buy MTS, the Manitoba-based wireless carrier that has been critical to creating a more competitive wireless market in the province. The nearly $4 billion deal would include a commitment to divest one-third of MTS wireless customers to Telus. The agreement is still subject to regulatory and shareholder approvals along with figuring out how some customers go to Telus and some stay with Bell. While the government has yet to articulate a clear strategy for wireless competition in Canada, the deal appears to kill the hope of four carriers in each market and will likely mean sharply increased prices for Manitoba consumers.
With the four competitors in Manitoba – Bell, Telus, Rogers, and MTS – the province features some of the lowest wireless prices in Canada. Compare Bell’s wireless pricing for consumers in Manitoba and Ontario. The cost of an unlimited nationwide calling share plan in Manitoba is $50. The same plan in Ontario is $65. The difference in data costs are even larger: Bell offers 6 GB for $20 in Manitoba. The same $20 will get you just 500 MB in Ontario. In fact, 5 GB costs $50 in Ontario, more than double the cost in Manitoba for less data. The other carriers such as Rogers and Telus also offer lower pricing in Manitoba. The reason is obvious: the presence of a fourth carrier creates more competition and lower pricing. With MTS out of the way – and Bell and Telus sharing the same wireless network – prices are bound to increase to levels more commonly found in the rest of the country.
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Among the many Internet success stories of the past two decades, Google stands alone. The undisputed king of search, hundreds of millions rely on it daily, supporting an Internet advertising business model that generates tens of billions of dollars annually.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that kind of success invariably leads to legal and regulatory issues, though most of Google’s legal fights have focused on content, such as the inclusion of controversial websites in its search index, the digitization of millions of books through its book search initiative, and the removal of links that may lead to websites that host infringing content.
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