Last week, I wrote about the need for the Canadian government to reboot its digital agenda, arguing that less than 12 months after the 2019 national election, the policy agenda had gone off the rails with a reversal on affordable telecom services, delays in broadband support and privacy reform, as well as plans for extensive online regulation. The Speech from the Throne, which sets out the government’s agenda, suggests that rather than rebooting the digital agenda, the government has largely deleted it altogether.
The speech was the longest throne speech since the Liberal election in 2015, yet there was apparently no time to reference privacy reform, intellectual property, wireless, or innovation (innovative appears once). Instead, beyond catching up on unfulfilled promises on rural broadband and promising action on online hate, the government’s digital agenda is – as Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said last week – now distilled primarily down to “get money from web giants.” That isn’t a digital agenda, it’s anti-digital agenda, with technology companies cast as both a foreign enemy to be regulated and an ATM for free cash to fund pet projects in the cultural sector.
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Net neutrality has long stood as a foundational Internet policy principle for the current Liberal government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has regularly spoken in support of net neutrality, describing it as “essential to keep the freedom associated with the Internet alive” and claiming that he would defend net neutrality even as the U.S. backtracked by repealing net neutrality regulations:
“The idea of throttling certain sites or charging extra for certain services just does not make sense and if we’re going to continue to ensure that … digital technology and use of the internet is the lever to create economic growth and opportunities for citizens right across this country, we need to continue to defend net neutrality and I will.”
The government’s support for net neutrality has been signalled in many ways: it passed a resolution in support of net neutrality; Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains affirmed “we support an open Internet where Canadians have the ability to access the content of their choice in accordance with Canadian laws”; and former Heritage Minister Melanie Joly used her speech on Canadian digital cultural policy in 2017 to note that “we stand by the principle of net neutrality.”
Yet Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault is promising a series of reforms that will undermine a core principle of net neutrality and Bains is seemingly content to remain silent.
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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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Net neutrality featured prominently in the launch of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel in 2018 with the government release stating “the review will be guided by the principle of net neutrality and will explore opportunities to further enshrine in legislation the principles of net neutrality in the provision and carriage of all telecommunications services.” The panel report includes a section on net neutrality which affirms support for the principle and which features two recommendations – one calls for a policy objective in the Telecommunications Act “to reflect the duty to safeguard open Internet access in Canada” and a second that calls on the CRTC to increase data gathering and reporting on open Internet access policies.
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Cogeco, the fourth largest cable operator in Canada (and number two in Ontario and Quebec), warns the broadcast and telecommunications legislative panel about the dangers of unregulated video services such as Netflix to national sovereignty in its previously secret submission. Obtained under the Access to Information Act (much like the previously discussed Bell and Shaw submissions), the Cogeco submission opposes new digital consumer protections and net neutrality rules but strongly supports increased regulation for online video services.
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