Canadian federal election promises digital changes. Not likely.

Canadian federal election promises digital changes. Not likely.

Unlike the election cycle in the U.S. it is pretty safe to say that the Canadian federal election, which happens every four years, doesn’t attract much attention outside of the country’s own, and not much inside its borders really.

However this year anyone involved in the Canadian tech scene is paying attention to the three parties: Conservatives, Liberals, and the NDP, as all three are including a digital policy as part of their larger national election platform.

So I thought I would take a look at the three parties and round-up all the different policies and add some thoughts to what is being proposed.

The Conservative Party

When it comes to the Conservative Party (Leader: Stephen Harper) there is much new being announced past what they have already declared as their digital policy while they were the governing party.

As it stands right now their digital policy includes:

  • Building world-class digital infrastructure
  • Encourage businesses to adopt digital technologies
  • Support digital skills development
  • Foster growth of Canadian companies supplying digital technologies to global markets
  • Create made-in-Canada content across all platforms.

In other words – a whole lot of nothing. This is a digital policy without any real substance but we need to remember that this is also the political party that realigned the mandate of the CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunication Commission) to be more industry friendly regardless of its latest stance on usage based billing.

When it comes to the copyright issue don’t be expecting any wondrous change in approach from the political party that is one of the original pushers of ACTA. In fact all we will see is the re-introduction of Bill C-32, which for all intents and purposes was written by the US entertainment industry via their Canadian front trade groups.

However there is one part of the Conservative party election platform (PDF) that, while not included as part of their digital policy is extremely worrying when it comes to individual privacy rights when it comes to computer and Internet usage.

Prior to the call for the election the Conservative introduced a bill in the Canadian Parliament that sought to deal with with lawful access which was an innocent phrase for creating a massive Internet surveillance apparatus along with ability to access and disclose personal information without court oversight.

The bill only went through one reading and then laid dormant but the Conservatives are committed to to add this lawful access to a larger crime and justice bill and pass it within their first 100 days of forming the new government.

Professor Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, has a great tear down of the bill as a whole but has this to say about the lawful access part:

There are several concerns with the Conservatives lawful access plans. First, it bears noting that these bills have never received extensive debate on the floor of the House of Commons and never been the subject of committee hearings. Police officers may support the legislation, but there has never been an opportunity to question them on the need for such legislation or on their ability to use lawful access powers if the bills become law. Federal and provincial privacy commissioners have expressed deep concerns about these bills, yet they have never had the opportunity to air those concerns before committee. Internet service providers, who face millions in additional costs – presumably passed along to consumers – have never appeared before committee. By making a commitment to passing lawful access within 100 days, the Conservatives are undertaking to pass legislation with enormous implications for the Internet that has never received parliamentary scrutiny and will receive limited attention.

So when it comes to the Conservative Party it seems that all we will have is just some more of the same when it comes to a totally lackluster digital policy; but with the added threat of a loaded gun when it comes to personal privacy rights on the Internet.

The Liberal Party

While Canada is a multi-party system, both federally and provincially, the reality is that federal elections come down to either Conservative or Liberal parties winning the seat of power. For the past several elections the Liberal party (Leader: Michael Ignatieff) has come up the loser and had to be happy with being the ‘loyal opposition’ party even though the last election saw them in a more powerful position due to the Conservative’s minority government position.

Whether that will change in this election remains to be seen but the party as a whole seems to have realized that a lot has changed in the last four years and that Canada needs a strong forward looking digital policy in order for the country to compete as a part of the new global digital landscape.

So as a part of their larger election platform (PDF) they have created an eight point plan as part of their digital policy.

  • Access to broadband for all Canadians to be supported by the sale of wireless spectrum
  • Close the digital divide
  • Fair balance between creators and consumers
  • Canadian content in a digital world
  • Tax credit to encourage competition and innovation
  • A review of usage based billing (UBB) and support of an open internet
  • Open Government initiative
  • Protection from digital threats

Now all this sounds nice but there’s a couple of things to remember. The talk around “access to broadband for all Canadians” sounds nice but it is predicated on the future sale of specialized wireless spectrum. We could get into a whole big conversation about the wireless marketplace in Canada but in reality it is a messy place dominated by three incumbent companies: Bell, Rogers, and Telus. It is also a marketplace that is in total confusion when it comes to new companies trying to gain a foothold in the Canadian wireless business.

The other thing to keep in mind before we all start gushing about national broadband access for all this access would be at 1.5 MB/second speed which puts it at the very bottom of what classifies as being broadband. Also there is no mention of what kind of minimum service we could expect with the plan or how well the plan would be observed by the current crop of carriers.

The NDP

Of the three national parties the NDP has always come out of any election more of a bridesmaid than a bride. It was only in the last election that they even came close to having any effect on national policy due to them joining forces with the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois in opposition during the Conservative party’s stint as a minority government.

This doesn’t stop them from announcing ambitious plans with every new election and this year is no different as part of their larger election platform the NDP (Leader: Jack Layton) have come out with a strong digital policy which includes the following:

  • As with the Liberals use the proceeds from spectrum sales to fund high-speed access to the Internet for all Canadians.
  • Rescind the Conservative industry friendly directive to the CRTC and become more consumer oriented in their decisions
  • Pass into law the idea of net neutrality
  • Clear rules to ISPs when it comes to things like pricing and throttling
  • Prohibit all types of usage based billing
  • Copyright reform that will take balanced approach between consumer and creator

While it would be nice to see such a balanced digital policy like the NDP’s offering become the backbone of Canada’s overall digital policy the chances of it happening is next to nil. The reality is that in Canada the NDP have been and will most likely also be a third place political party when it comes to federal politics so they can afford to put out an even handed digital policy like this because that is pretty much what it will be – just another election promise.

Finishing thoughts

There you have it – Canada’s political parties and their digital policies. Of the three parties the offering from the NDP might be the best all round policy but has very little chance of actually being passed into law.

The next best alternative is obviously the one from the Liberal party but given the current polls it will end up much like the one from the NDP – election promises.

At this point the Conservatives are leading in the election polls which means not much will change except we could end up with even less personal privacy rights, and we won’t even have a minority government situation to possibly protect us.

If this is indeed the case the digital future of Canada doesn’t look to bright.

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