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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Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault participated in an online town hall with the music sector yesterday. When participants raised the prospect of relaxing social distancing rules to one metre in order to support live music shows, Guilbeault rightly noted that he was unable to help as the issue was outside his jurisdiction. Instead, he volunteered that his government would be supporting the industry through digital taxes, CRTC regulation, and mandated Cancon requirements. The response was typical of the government’s approach on cultural issues. The film and television sector, has asked for government support in the form of COVID-19 insurance to help get productions off the ground, but the government has not acted, instead pointing to Internet regulation. The news sector wants the millions in support the government promised months ago, but instead it gets promises of Internet regulation.
As industry identifies the policy measures that would help get their sectors restarted, Guilbeault has emerged as the leading government voice for Internet regulation as the alternative solution. The approach represents a terrible bungling of the Internet regulation file dating back years, with the government now posed to adopted harmful policies on non-issues and largely leave the real Internet policy concerns untouched. The plan – which Guilbeault has spelled out in multiple media interviews (and for which Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains has remained puzzlingly silent) – involves new digital sales taxes, massive new powers for the CRTC to regulate payments from online services and mandate Cancon contributions, and new requirements for Internet platforms to pay licensing fees for links to news articles.
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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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The ratification of the Canada – US- Mexico Trade Agreement has captured considerable attention with several committees studying Bill C-4, the bill aimed at ratifying the deal. Over the past month, I’ve had the opportunity to appear before two of those committees – the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade and on Industry, Science and Technology – where I discussed the digital law and policy implications the agreement. This week’s podcast features excerpts from those appearances, including my opening statement and the ensuing discussion with several MPs on copyright term extension, cultural policy, and privacy.
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In the closing months of the last Liberal majority government mandate, I spoke to a government official about the lessons learned from the prior four years. Their response? If we knew then what we know now, we would have moved much faster on policy. The four years moves very quickly and if you don’t manage to lay the groundwork and introduce proposed legislation within the first 12 – 24 months, it becomes very difficult to enact given competing policy priorities, demands on committee time, Senate review, and a myriad of other challenges.
As I think about what comes next for Canadian digital policy under the new Liberal minority government, those words strike me as more relevant than ever. Even if the government runs more like a majority than a minority (which certainly seems likely on digital policy as no one is forcing an election over privacy or wireless pricing), the same ministers return to their portfolios (which may or may not happen) and the same committee structures return largely unchanged (which will not happen since that INDU chair Dan Ruimy was not re-elected), picking up where the government left off in June will not be easy. Further, the Liberal platform provides the roadmap for future reforms, but moving rapidly on these issues – particularly given expectations that a minority government’s mandate may run shorter than a majority – suggests that quick wins will be preferred to extensive legislative reform.
So what are likely next steps on digital policy?
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