Canada’s Election: A Review of the Conservative Platform on Digital Issues

Recently, Canada was called in to an election. Now that all the political parties are on the campaign trail, what are they promising to those who watch the copyright and privacy file? Well, we went digging to find out.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

A Brief Introduction

When an election is called in Canada, it means all of the bills that have not been passed has died on the order paper. That means Bill C-32, Canada’s copyright bill, and Bill C-50, C-51 and C-52, the lawful access bills, is no more. Whichever party wins the election may decide to re-introduce whatever legislation was previously introduced in the last session of parliament.

Now that we are in an election, the different political parties are publishing their party platforms – effectively, promises they are issuing to the public should they get elected. Granted, political promises are generally cheap during an election because, as many Canadians know, countless promises have been broken before after the elections are over. Still, it is interesting to see what is being promised right now. We begin with one of the two largest parties in Canada and the party that was elected in the previous election, the Conservative Party of Canada.

The Conservative Party platform is available via their official website.

The Conservative Platform

The issues we are covering start on page 15 under the title “Digital Economy Strategy”

What is interesting is the following:

A Stephen Harper-led majority Government will also reintroduce and pass the Copyright Modernization Act, a key pillar in our commitment to make Canada a leader in the global digital economy.

This balanced, commonsense legislation recognizes the practical priorities of teachers, students, artists, families, and technology companies, among others, while aligning Canada with international standards. It respects both the rights of creators and the interests of consumers.

It will ensure that Canada’s copyright law will be responsive in a fast changing digital world, while protecting and creating jobs, promoting innovation, and attracting investment to Canada.

This is clearly a reference to Bill C-32. This is a bill that we reviewed thouroughly in the past. The major flaw in this particular bill is the provisions surrounding digital locks. If you want to remix or innovate in any way or even do some time-shifting or media shifting, a digital lock will legally trump all of that and make you legally a copyright scofflaw. DVD’s with their CSS, for example, will prohibit many of the activities that would benefit consumers or even creators for that matter. BluRay with its BD or BD+ copy protection is in the same boat as well. In short, it’s a DMCA-style provision that has contributed to the stunting of innovation in the US for years. Innovation legally stops at a digital lock in this case.

Another point is found on pag 50 under the title “Reintroduction of Law-and-Order Legislation”. The point is a little buried in a mix of other points, but it is there:

give law enforcement and national security agencies up-to-date tools to fight crime in today’s high-tech telecommunications environment;

This is quite cleverly worded because if you do a word search for “Lawful Access”, you will find nothing. Interestingly enough, “privacy” doesn’t show up either. Still, this is very likely a reference to the Lawful Access bills C-50, C-51 and C-52. These bills would have allowed RCMP to conduct an investigation into someones internet activity without a court order. They would have access to, among other things, e-mails, text messaging, instant messaging and a whole lot more under the proposed laws. In short, it will completely strip away expectations of privacy from the prying eyes of the unchecked government.

One of the big concerns with this is the potential for abuse. Say someone in the force suspects someone else of, say, cheating on them. They can simply go to the ISP and demand all the information about that particular person and pry in to their private lives. It’s not hard to imagine a court rejecting such a thing, but without court oversight, who is going to stop such activity? I’m not saying that the RCMP have no right to do investigations on someone if they are merely on the internet, but I think many Canadians would feel a little better knowing that there is some sort of court oversight preventing any sign of abuse. Without checks and balances in place, I think such a thing is a very hard sell for those who have any concern for privacy in Canada.

Overall Impression

Copyright issues has had an interesting journey over the past few years. There were town hall meetings and an online consultation to at least give the impression that the government is listening. There were issues of those who were trying to push for more strict copyright laws shutting out those who disagree part way through, but at least the consultation existed in the first place. The Conservative government does have a mixed past when it comes to copyright. Last session was Bill C-32 where DRM stifled innovation, but it did have some interesting ideas in the bill as well (i.e. the YouTube provision), but the presence of DRM would cancel all the legal exceptions anyway. In the session before, the Conservative party introduced Bill C-61 which was essentially a wish-list of a few foreign record labels that really would have decimated Canadian innovation in all areas, not just in technology, but also music and freedom of expression. It’s not hard to argue that if it wasn’t for public outcry over the years on this issue, Bill C-32 would have likely been a carbon copy of its predecessor. Ultimately, though, the DRM issue is still there through both bills. Quite frankly, the Conservatives need to permit the exceptions even in the presence of DRM. Otherwise, the bill risks missing the point of copyright as being a tool to help creativity by simply hampering it.

The situation with the Lawful Access bills is far worse. It’s essentially what the Liberals wanted to pass when they were in power and the Conservatives merely copied it over into their version of the legislation. It was very unpopular when the Liberals were in power and such legislation won’t exactly be getting any praise from those who are concerned about their privacy online.

So, in general, I think the Conservative party are way off the mark when it comes to digital issues. The plans for copyright are still quite flawed in that they are still too strict and the Lawful Access plans are abysmal when it comes to addressing privacy. If the Conservatives are hoping to win over voters who are of a similar mind-set to me (values privacy and wants to be allowed to be innovative in creative works rather than be worried about being hampered by DRM), they need to seriously revamp their strategy quick. If things stay the way they are for the Conservatives position and the election were decided merely on these issues alone, the Conservatives lose my vote.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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