Canada’s experience with a national digital strategy has been marked primarily by delays and underwhelming policies. The Conservatives took years to release their strategy as Industry Minister Christian Paradis did nothing, leaving it to James Moore to ultimately release a digital strategy without a strategy. Those hoping for the rejuvenated approach under the Liberals seem likely to be left disappointed. Indeed, Canada’s long road toward a national digital strategy may have come to an end with Budget 2016. The government has some very modest commitments on the digital front, but the budget appears to signal a shift in approach with the Liberals substituting a digital strategy for one focused on innovation. Addressing Canada’s innovation record is important (I’ll have more to say on the issue in a column next week), but emphasizing innovation is not a substitute for addressing digital policy.
The headline digital policy expenditure in Budget 2016 is a $500 million commitment over five year to support broadband in rural and remote areas. While further details are promised in the future, this commitment comes without any reference to an actual broadband goal or target. A commitment to universal affordable broadband access regardless of location is what is really needed (the CRTC may step in to do so as part of its upcoming basic services obligation hearing) but that is not in the budget. The problem is particularly pronounced within first nations communities, where reports indicate that almost half of households do not have an Internet connection.
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The Trouble with the TPP series this week has focused on issues such as the failure to obtain a full cultural exception and the weak e-commerce rules that do little to assist online businesses, particularly small and medium sized enterprises. Yet the Canadian digital failure goes even further. While other countries saw the opportunity to use the TPP to advance their domestic online sector through side agreements, Canada remained on the sidelines. Indeed, as some leading critics such as Jim Balsillie have noted, the Canadian government did little to even consult with Canada’s technology sector.
Consider a side letter on online education between Australia and Vietnam. The side letter opens the door to technical assistance and pilot programs for online education between the two countries, providing for assistance on distance education delivery models, assessing applications from Australian providers to deliver online education, and work to recognize the qualifications obtained from such courses. Moreover, the letter states that:
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The foundation of any national digital policy is affordable high-speed Internet access. Given the importance of the Internet to education, culture, commerce, and political participation, most countries have established ambitious targets to ensure that all citizens enjoy access to reasonably priced broadband services.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the importance of broadband is typically taken as a given, but Canadian broadband policy remains discouragingly incoherent and unambitious. The government and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission have different targets, while the government has established relatively slow speed goals that will still leave three-quarters of a million Canadians without access.
The inconsistent broadband goals are difficult to understand. The CRTC’s 2015-2016 Priorities and Planning Report target for broadband access is 5 megabits per second download for 100 per cent of the population by the end of 2015. Meanwhile, the government’s target will take many more years to complete and does not envision universal access.
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Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism bill, passed third reading in the House of Commons last night as Conservative and Liberal MPs voted in favour of the bill, leaving only the NDP and Green opposed. It now heads to the Senate, which has already conducted most of its hearings on the bill. Those hearings – which have included Canadian Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien – have been better than the embarrassing Public Safety and National Security review (hearing by the numbers, witnesses, and clause-by-clause review), yet the outcome is almost sure to be the same. Bill C-51 is on a legislative fast track and Conservative Senators are incredibly unlikely to require amendments that would send the bill back to the House.
As debate on Bill C-51 wound down, Press Progress points out that Conservative MP Laurie Hawn took the time to question the values of leading Canadian technology companies such as Shopify and Hootsuite. The CEOs of those companies, along many others, dared to sign a public letter calling on the government to go back to the drawing board on the bill. The letter highlights concerns with website takedowns, new CSIS powers, and data security issues.
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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 my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the following four concerns should be top of mind for policy makers and politicians:
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