Conservative Party Releases Platform – An Analysis (Part 1)

The Conservative Party has already released their party platform. We offer an analysis through the lens of digital rights.

Yesterday, we reported on the election call hitting on a Sunday. Much of the focus was on the Liberal party and where they are starting off – namely their war on the Internet.

Of course, with their opposition to Bill C-10, there will be a great deal of interest in what the Conservative party has to offer. It appears as though we didn’t have to wait long. It seems that the Conservatives wanted the talking point that they were the first to unveil their platform. This is actually unlike the last election where the Conservative party was the last party to release their platform – coming within days of the election being held. That obviously burned the party because they were seen as the party without a plan. So, they don’t want that hanging over their heads this time around.

So, this means that our world class coverage begins with the Conservative party’s platform. The platform is available on their official website. We also have their plan in PDF format as well. As always, we’ll offer snippets as they relate to digital rights and offer our analysis as we go along.

What we should point out before we begin out analysis is the very odd pagination system. Each page in the PDF is actually two pages split down the middle. Why that is, we don’t know, but we do know that it’s an interesting method of padding the page numbers. So, we’ll note the page number and the PDF page number to assist in navigating the file.

Taxing Big Tech – An Open Door to Link Taxes?

The first tidbit we found was on page 25 (PDF page 13):

Ensure a Level Playing Field for Canadian business and real competition – Job creation in Canada is held back when Canadians are blocked from starting and building businesses by unfair competition from market-dominant firms – some Canadian but many foreign. Canada’s Conservatives will ensure a level playing field by:

  • Making foreign tech companies pay their fair share of taxes, including sales tax and a digital services tax representing 3% of the gross revenue in Canada if they don’t pay corporate income tax here; and

This, of course, is nothing new. Adding a tax to large tech companies was pretty much promised by every party during the last election. Obviously, we know now that this was never implemented. So, this is, at the very least, round two of promising such a thing.

Of course, paying close attention to the working, you’ll note the word “including”. So, that leads to an open door for what could also mean much more. Throughout the government, many, including ourselves, simply took adding a tax to big tech at face value. Just adding a tax for large tech giants. Of course, we later found out that, buried in all of this was the unspoken link tax law. The Liberal party, of course, really took that and ran with it. Essentially, link taxes, for them, is just another way of taxing the large tech firms. Obviously, this had serious implications for the open web at large as it would have indiscriminately targeting websites as a whole. So, we can see here that a link tax is something that is a possibility here as well.

That section also tacks on the following:

For too long, Canadian governments have often rubber-stamped mergers that enrich executives while hurting workers and consumers. It’s time for that to change. Canada’s Conservatives will stand up to corporate Canada and reject mergers that substantially reduce competition and lead to layoffs and higher prices.

Now, this is a broad comment. However, we happen to know about how competition in the ISP and mobile carrier sector has been non-existent for years, if not, decades. Exemplifying the lack of competition is the attempt by Rogers to buy Shaw. Everyone seems to know that the deal will hurt competition and drive up prices for consumers. For almost everyone, this is a “water is wet” level of obvious statement. While this broad statement does seem to fit nicely with the push to reject the Rogers Shaw deal, it doesn’t specifically name that particular deal either.

Investment in 5G and Broadband Networks

The next tidbit we found is on page 27 (PDF page 14) which shows this:

Building infrastructure creates jobs in construction, project finance and manufacturing. It also creates more jobs by helping Canadian businesses get their products to market and helping Canadians get to work or do their jobs from wherever they live. As technology continues to advance, the infrastructure of the future – broadband and 5G – will be increasingly critical to job creation.

This is another commitment that is nothing new. For quite some time now, Federal political parties have always committed to building up infrastructure for both mobile and Internet infrastructure. Billions have always been earmarked for improving the infrastructure. The problem has always been that the largest carriers generally benefit from this. Smaller carriers have to beg to rent out this infrastructure. Meanwhile, the larger carriers get to push the cost of building the infrastructure onto taxpayers while netting all the profits that come out of it after. The only good news is that the networks will generally be improving, but it’s generally unclear how much consumers will actually benefit from this because the cost of these services continue to be the highest or among the highest in the world. Will the savings be passed on to consumers? Based on that paragraph, we really don’t know.

There is some clarity of this on page 28 (PDF page 15) which reads as follows:

Canada’s Conservatives will accelerate the delivery of broadband from coast to coast to coast. We will:

  • Accelerate the plan to get rural broadband built.
  • Speed up the spectrum auction process to get more spectrum into use and apply “use it or lose it” provisions to ensure that spectrum (particularly in rural areas) is actually developed, with auction revenue dedicated to our digital infrastructure plan.
  • Require that Huawei equipment not be used, to protect national security.

This commitment to push for the development of rural and indigenous communities has been broadly promised during the last election. As we know now, nothing was seemingly really done about it. This is through what we see as a lack of any real movement on this file. As a result, this is round 2 of promising to improve the infrastructure of rural communities. Weirdly enough, though, there is no mention of indigenous communities, just rural communities. That is a rather bizarre omission here. Earlier this year, an RBC study did point out that indigenous communities often have a much greater drive for entrepreneurship. The evidence suggests that building up this infrastructure for indigenous communities could very easily benefit the overall Canadian economy. Why indigenous communities were left out in this part is really strange.

Reinforcing Patents

also on page 28 (PDF page 15) is this bit:

Recognizing the importance of protecting more Canadian innovation with patents, Canada’s Conservatives will cover up to $10,000 of the administrative and legal costs of each of the first five patents filed by any Canadian small or medium-sized business.

This generally seems to reinforce the patent system. For quite some time, a long-standing problem in North America is the problem of patent trolling. In short, a patent is filed that is generally very obvious (i.e. contact tracing or sorting photos), then those patent trolls sue as many companies as possible to try and skim money off of their profits – in some cases, driving those companies into the ground in the process. What’s more is that there is little to no evidence to suggest that patents increase innovation in a given country. So, it’s generally unclear if such a commitment is really going to be helpful or not.

Cutting Investment in Big Tech Companies

There was one section we noticed on page 29 (PDF page 15) which shows the following:

We will streamline and accelerate the SR&ED program. This important program is a badly broken administrative nightmare that fuels an ecosystem of consultants and advisory firms instead of focusing on research and development. Overall, 25% of SR&ED funding goes to consultants rather than innovators. To fix it, we will:

  • Move administration from CRA to ISED and have the program administered by the same group that administers the IRAP program;
  • Allow ISED to issue a certificate of allowable deductions which would then be accepted by CRA, saving significant compliance paperwork and allowing innovators to focus on innovating instead of filling out forms; and
  • Making it easier for software development to qualify for SR&ED.

We will then launch a review of all innovation programs at ISED and across the government to ensure they are as simple as possible, to remove duplication, and to ensure that all innovation spending benefits Canada by:

  • Requiring that recipients demonstrate that intellectual property, production, ownership, and profits are likely to stay in Canada;
  • Prohibit foreign state-owned entities or those with ties to foreign militaries from receiving funding;
  • Requiring that all intellectual property developed with the support of the Canadian government be held by a Canadian entity and that recipients agree to pay back the subsidy if they sell the IP to a foreign buyer;
  • Ending the payment of Canadian tax dollars to large foreign tech companies; and
  • Putting any money saved by no longer subsidizing foreign multinationals into increasing SR&ED generosity for Canadian small business.

A good chunk of this is actually outside our area of expertise. So, we actually curiously looked at what University law professor, Michael Geist, might have to say about this. His main site doesn’t offer anything about the Conservative party platform and the Twitter thread he posted about the platform doesn’t mention this section either.

The only thing we really got out of this section is that investments are going to disappear for foreign big tech corporations. Without further elaboration, we can’t relaly go any further into this.

Pushing Through International Trade Agreements

Moving over to page 31 (PDF page 16), you’ll note the following:

Canada’s Conservatives will:

  • Seek to enlarge the CPTPP deal and pursue setting rules for digital trade through the CPTPP.
  • Advocate for the speedy conclusion of the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA).

At first blush, this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with digital rights. However, those (like us) who have been reporting on these issues knows full well that this has huge implications for digital rights.

The CPTPP is generally the new name for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). It was briefly known as TPP-11 after the US pulled out of the trade agreement. While the newest version was ratified, that newest version also removes a lot of the most brutal copyright laws. That, however, doesn’t mean that there are no bad provisions to be found still. In 2018, we offered an analysis of the new TPP (or CPTPP). In a nutshell, we found ratification of treaties that enforce anti-circumvention measures, the increase of copyright term to life plus 70 years, unmasking of domain name owners, and criminal penalties for breaking a DRM among other things. By the end of 2018, Canada ratified the new agreement, leaving out many of these remaining brutal copyright provisions. It seems that the Conservatives want to go back and specifically implement some of these terrible provisions.

TiSA, or the Trades in Services Agreement (TiSA), is a comparatively obscure international trade agreement. This dates back even further all the way back to 2015 when Freezenet was still in the early stages of development. Still, despite the heavy lifting we were doing back then, we did offer an analysis of the agreement when it was still in draft form. Like the CPTPP, TiSA would enforce anti-circumvention laws for DRM among other things.

Obviously, this carries on the tradition of just naming the trade agreements and moving on. It conveniently leaves out all the provisions that tends to favour multi-national corporations such as Inter-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions which tends to mean that if a law gets in the way of a multinational corporations profits or future potential profits, then that corporation has a right to sue a given government for enacting such a law. In short, while supporters try and push the agenda that trade is good, trade deals make that happen, therefore, trade deals are good and shouldn’t be questioned, the reality is that many provisions embedded in these agreements can be quite corrosive to a countries sovereignty in favour of private multinational interests.

Right to Repair

Probably one very easy to miss section is a promise for right to repair. From page 35 (PDF page 18):

Extend “right to repair” to farm vehicles to provide farmers with choice on where to repair their vehicles.

Right to repair legislation has become increasingly a big thing from the digital rights. When devices break down, companies have increasingly been manufacturing devices in a way that only permits “authorized” repair facilities to fix it. This tends to lead to higher costs for repair work and also weeds out smaller operations in the process. Often, copy protection is used to prevent third parties from fixing said devices in the first place. When companies decide something is obsolete, then they often push to have owners simply buy new, leading to even more e-waste.

This trend has been going on for many years and has been expanding into other sectors such as the agriculture sector (coincidentally, this is aimed at farmers given the context of this being in the agriculture section). The end result is that consumers waste more and pay more.

The fact that this was inserted into the agriculture section instead of being more broad is a bit disappointing here. What’s more is that this commitment directly contradicts the international trade agreements promises above. Companies often implement DRM to prevent the repairing of something. So, but committing to expand the implementation of CPTPP and TiSA, breaking a DRM will mean jail sentences. At the same time, breaking a DRM can be necessary to repair something. As a result, these contradictory promises need to be reconciled somehow.

Pension and EI Requirements for Gig Economy Employees

One reality that has been growing in recent years is the rise of the gig economy. An example of this are people who deliver food for corporate apps like Skip the Dishes, for instance. Interestingly, this did make an appearance in the platform. From page page 42 (PDF page 22):

Security for Gig Economy Workers

Canada’s Conservatives recognize that millions of Canadians don’t qualify for Employment Insurance because they are gig workers, independent contractors, online platform workers, contract, on-call, and temporary workers. Roughly 1.7 million people are engaged in independent, temporary work. They don’t have the insurable hours and contributions of a typical employee. This means they have no safety net.

We believe that it’s time to make gig economy companies pay their fair share to give workers the protection they need.

We will require gig economy companies to make contributions equivalent to CPP and EI premiums into a new, portable Employee Savings Account every time they pay their workers. The money will grow tax-free and can be withdrawn by the worker when needed.

While that might be good news on the surface for those stuck in those sectors, it would remain to be seen if this actually come to fruition in some form or another.

Cell Phone and Internet Bills

That high cost of cell phone and Internet bills did get mention in the platform, interestingly enough. This is mentioned on page 51 (PDF page 26):

Lower Cellphone and Internet Bills

Canadians continue to pay some of the highest prices in the world for accessing the internet – both at home and on their mobile phones. A few giant companies have too much power, and Canadians are suffering for it.

It’s time for a government that takes the side of consumers.

Canada’s Conservatives will take real action to reduce how much Canadians pay for this essential part of life. Our four part affordability plan includes:

  • Accountability: Put consumers first and hold the big telecom service providers accountable for anti-competitive behaviour and practices that hurt consumers.
  • Competition: We will promote competition by:
    • Allowing foreign telecommunications companies to provide services to Canadian customers, provided that the same treatment is reciprocated for Canadian companies in that company’s country.
  • Access: Build digital infrastructure to connect all of Canada to High-Speed Internet by 2025, ensuring that all Canadians have reliable access to the Internet regardless of where they live.
  • Investment: Promote investment in communications facilities by local and regional communities and businesses. This will reduce local and regional dependence on national telecommunications giants.

For as much flack as the Conservative likes to deal on the Liberals for big platitudes with no specific plan, it’s kind of ironic that the above quote pretty much commits the exact same political crime. There’s no real specifics involved here. With respect to the point about building infrastructure, but committing to a date after the next election is pretty much a mirror to a Liberal promise of increasing infrastructure sometime off into a future so distant, that no one has to commit to anything. There was an earlier promise about increasing broadband auctions to be fair, but this idea wound up being an absolute failure to solve anything.

when Stephen Harper was in power (the last Conservative government), they committed to wireless spectrum auctions as a way of lowering costs for consumers and increasing competition. It was a theory that sounded good on paper, but people who know how monopolistic the industry knew that this was never going to be successful. Those critics were proven right when a Minister found himself at a podium at the end of the auction to announce the winners of the auction. He went through every province and pretty much repeated the same carrier names over and over again (Telus, Rogers, and Bell). With regional monopoly-like players sometimes making a mention (such as Sasktel), the results was an abysmal failure on the part of Conservatives. The major carriers bought up all the spectrum, squeezed out the competition, and the problems of an insanely concentrated industry simply worsened. It leaves one to wonder if the Conservative party in its current form are setting up to repeat history by implementing an equally disastrous theory.

Examining Big Tech

Moving over to page 52 (not mentioned on the page itself) (PDF page 27), we found this snippet:

Reining in the Big Tech Companies

Canada’s Conservatives will create a technology task force within the Competition Bureau to examine whether dominance and anti-competitive behaviour of big tech is damaging to Canadian industry. We will examine how algorithms and data give big tech an advantage over Canadian business, as well as how fintech and new technologies could foster improved competition.

So, they want to add some bureaucracy to examine big tech to determine if they hurt Canadian industry. Once again, specifics are unclear such as whether or not fines could be levied against big tech, what specific areas are of concern, or if there would be, really, any followup after this examination in the first place. It could be the start of something, but for what, we’re not entirely sure.

Lobbying

The influence of lobbyists has been an issue digital rights advocates knows all to well. At best, when it comes to lobbying, Canadians can find out when a lobbyist had a meeting and a broad topic that was discussed. That’s about it, though. So, it was interesting to see this get added into the platform on page 69 (PFD page 35):

Canada’s Conservatives will:

  • Mandate full transparency by requiring all corporations and other organizations that lobby to
    register and report their meetings;

It would be nice to have more details on what lobbyists are up to, however, we are skeptical that any of this is even going to change.

Online Incitement

There’s quite a gap on the wide range of topics of digital rights, but we do get another mention on page 92 (PDF page 47):

Fighting Online Incitement

Canadians recognize the connection between incitement to violence, especially online, and acts of violence in Canada and other countries. Conservatives will fight online incitement and hatred by clearly criminalizing statements that encourage violence against other people or identifiable groups.

Conservatives will also protect forms of speech, criticism, and argument that do not encourage violence. Tackling hate speech is too important to be left to human rights tribunals. Those who promote violence need to be criminally prosecuted.

The online harms proposal was something we reported on in detail earlier this month. We, of course, were very worried about this not because we are against fighting harmful content, but the insane burden it puts on operators like us to the point where no one would be able to follow the law. This section, at least, suggests that there will be a narrower method of targeting such content (not to mention the narrowing of the definition to content that incites violence). Standing alone, this section is a vast improvement over what we seen from the Liberal government.

Fighting Disinformation Online

Shortly after, the platform discusses how the party intends on fighting disinformation. This is found on page 95 (PDF page 48):

Canadians are facing growing security threats. A global pandemic, great power rivalries, transnational criminal organizations, terrorism, disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks all pose ongoing threats to Canadians.

Canada’s Conservatives will:

  • Mandate a Minister of National Security & Public Safety with securing Canadians from threats by addressing data and cybersecurity, information operations, threats from foreign actors against Canadian residents, extremist financing, space and surveillance, and industry and critical infrastructure.
  • Protect Canadian democracy from foreign interference. The Trudeau government adopted limited measures to address disinformation and influence operations before the 2019 federal
    election. Those efforts ended with the election, and the government has not developed or implemented a permanent strategy to address the long-term threat. Canada’s Conservatives will recognize that information warfare and influence operations do not simply target our election cycles but are a persistent threat to our entire democratic system.

So, after attacking the Liberals, the Conservatives offered this further detail about what they want to do:

To protect our democracy from foreign interference, we will:

  • Establish a permanent task force to address foreign interference that will:
    • Address disinformation and influence operations online and on our streets and will bring together National Defence, Global Affairs, CSIS, CSE, provincial and municipal agencies, civil society, social media platforms and media.
    • Address threats from foreign actors against Canadian residents, including recently reported operations against diaspora communities in Canada.
    • Engage our allies and other democracies to monitor, detect, and expose foreign disinformation attacks and threats from foreign actors.

So, the plan seems to be focused on detection more than anything else. Beyond that? Not much. Honestly, the question is, is there anything in this snippet that isn’t already happening today? Other than maybe having regular contact between platforms and intelligence agencies, that’s pretty unclear.

Armed Forces Involvement in Cyber Defence

Cyber defence did make it into the platform on page 98 (PDF page 50):

Defend Canada Against Cyber Attacks

Canada’s national security requires being prepared for the cyber warfare threats we face. The CAF currently lacks the cyber capabilities it needs.

To ensure we are prepared, Canada’s Conservatives will:

  • Finish standing-up a properly funded, equipped, and staffed Canadian Armed Forces Cyber Command to defend Canada from cyber-attacks.
  • Emphasize reserve participation in CAF Cyber Command.
  • Establish closer collaboration between the private sector cyber industry and CAF Cyber Command.
  • Develop capabilities for cyber operations.

Chances are, this is directed at defending public digital infrastructure more than anything else.

Concluding Thoughts So Far

At this stage in our analysis, we’ve completed our reading all the way up to the end of page 117 (PDF page 59). We’ve basically gotten through the bulk of the analysis, but there’s still some distance to cover.

So far, we have:

  • Taxing large tech giants and possibly inserting a link tax
  • More and/or faster broadband spectrum auctions to lower prices and increase competition – which wasn’t all that successful the last time the party was in power
  • Pushing broader implementation of the CPTPP and TiSA which criminalizes breaking a DRM and unmasks domain name owners to increase the threat of potential abuse for domain name owners in Canada
  • Support for Right to Repair legislation, but only for farmers
  • Opening the possibility for pensions and EI for gig economy workers
  • Increasing accountability for big telecom and lowering cell phone and Internet rates for consumers, though there were no specifics
  • Additional bureaucracy to “examine” big tech and their potential to harm Canadian innovation and business – again, details are sparse
  • Increase transparency for lobbying, though unclear if this will actually be a thing
  • An apparent narrowing of the scope of the online harms proposal to actually target content that incites violence – which would be an improvement over today’s proposal
  • Monitoring foreign disinformation campaigns
  • Increase involvement for Canadian Armed Forces in cyber security, though it’s likely that this is aimed at public infrastructure

Obviously, this isn’t the end of the analysis. It just happens to be how much we were able to analyze in our given allotted time for today. It is a lot of content to sift through to say the least – some of that content vague that requires context. Barring something absolutely dramatic happening tomorrow, our plan is to finish sifting through this platform and reporting on what we find through the lens of digital rights. We hope you found what we were able to highlight so far to be useful at the very least.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.



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