Canada votes today. So, we look back and see what impact digital rights and technology had on the debate.
On the lead up to the Canadian election, we saw a flurry of digital rights issues cropping up. One issue is the ongoing debate on encryption where Canada’s public safety minister, Ralph Goodale, openly getting Canada involved in the war on encryption. That proposal received received widespread backlash in the digital rights community. Additionally, there is the Facebook data leak which could have brought personal privacy into the debate. There is the debate surrounding loot boxes in video games being sold to children and whether or not loot boxes are gambling.
Then, there is the issue of whether or not Canada should join other countries and begin mass Internet censorship. Let’s not forget the ongoing debate about copyright and whether or not the country should empower creators by offering a stronger fair dealing or cave to corporate lobbyist pressure and restrict copyright further. Additionally, there is copyright provisions in various notorious “trade” agreements such as CETA and whether or not Canada should just go along with those provisions, overriding current copyright laws for the worse.
Over top of this is the role social media plays in various issues. Should there be stronger regulation to target fake news? What about free speech and what constitutes fake news? What is social media’s role in a Canadian election?
While that isn’t a complete list of issues facing Canada on the digital rights front, that does show a nice sample. So, the potential for digital rights to become an election issue was certainly there. The issues are relevant, important, and has a place in a modern political debate. It doesn’t need to be the central issue in the election, but it certainly has a right to be present.
Unfortunately, things looked grim from the outset. At the beginning of the election, there was a very real reason to worry whether or not all of these issues would get swept under the rug. As the election season went on, we saw small issues bubble to the surface. The NDP announced a plan to cap cell phone and Internet bills. The Macleans debate saw Elizabeth May mention the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Eventually, we were able to dig deep into all the party platforms to find occasional mentions of digital rights issues.
Apart from the platforms, the election became less about how parties stand going forward deeper into the digital age and more about, “hey, someone actually said something about technology!”
Of course, whether or not politicians are paying attention to these issues, that isn’t stopping the issues from cropping up in the first place. In one instance, we saw the Conservative party catch flak for a mailout which sparked a question about privacy. Towards the end of the election, the CBC sued the Conservative party for copyright infringement. Also, we saw the president and CEO of the CIRA openly asking where the debate on encryption is. So, even during the election campaign, digital rights issues wound up forcing their way into the spotlight in small ways.
Unfortunately, all of these issues didn’t get much traction from a digital rights standpoint. The mailout didn’t really get much traction and wound up being, at best, a footnote in the election. The lawsuit, which saw the most traction, wound up being an issue about politics and whether or not CBC is biased thanks to Conservatives utilizing that angle instead of the more substantial debate on copyright. Finally, the comments about encryption came pretty much at the 11th hour where they were published on a Friday right before election day Monday. So, at best, those comments might get some play post election more than anything else.
While digital rights issues wound up being an elephant in the room, the latter part of the election wound up being all about scaremongering. Outlets and political war rooms tried to use terms like “vote splitting”, “coalition” and “majority government” in an effort to scare voters into keeping with the status quo. It’s not all that surprising because in the absence of a political debate about substance, outlets and parties alike switch to mudslinging and ratcheting up the politics of fear to get those last straggling votes. Anything to keep the status quo of the top two parties always being the top two parties no matter what.
So, to sum up the election in one word, the election was “disappointing”. There were plenty of opportunities where substantial debates could have been discussed. Unfortunately, media outlets and major parties tried to focus in on who is voting where and scaring voters into voting one way or the other all the while trying to sling mud at opponents (apart from the Green Party, was there any party the Conservatives didn’t attack?)
Despite best efforts, it looks like this election season is going to more or less be a lost opportunity to discuss the future of Canada. The environment probably got the most play in the election, but all that resulted in is various established parties simply green washing themselves (The Liberals even went so far as to swap out red for green in their logo and on their podiums for a while).
As a result, there is a risk that this sends a message to the parties: Canadians don’t care about digital rights. Issues surrounding privacy is just some boring topic that can be forgotten about. Copyright? Who cares? Encryption? What’s that? The hope is that this does not translate into draconian laws being pushed in the next session of parliament. If these issues don’t matter, politicians can just take the lobbying cash, legislate to the foreign corporate lobbyists liking, and dust their hands of the issue after. The only thing that would stymie this is if Canada winds up in a minority government situation. Then, everything is up in the air.
While anything can happen, the vacuum of substantial debate is probably going to result in some dark clouds in the future. We can only hope that nothing bad is going to happen, but you never know in a situation like this.