Digital Rights Advocates Giving Up, Declares Trudeau’s Government Anti-Internet

There was plenty of hope for the current government in the beginning, but it has regressed into the old habits. Advocates are giving up on them altogether.

Is it time to write this government off at this point? More and more are thinking so. After dragging their feet on badly needed privacy reform laws among other things, the Trudeau government has effectively regressed back to the bad old days.

The bad old days stretches across quite a swath of history as far as governance over digital matters is concerned. We’re talking about a stretch that spans my entire personal career as a digital rights journalist going all the way back to 2005. That stretch, at minimum, carried through all the way to the end of the Harper Conservative government. It’s a stretch of history that feels like multiple lifetimes at the very least.

Governments both Liberal and Conservative eagerly ate up any bad law corporate interests and spy organizations threw at them. Whether it was warrantless wiretapping, the Canadian DMCA, or the failed three strikes law, government stood at the ready to pass bad laws at the expense of their own citizens. Understandably, it fostered a mentality amongst many that government is adverse to working for Canadians and are more intent on pleasing their corporate handlers. Canadians didn’t really know anything different all this time.

After years of public pressure from the public, the Harper government did take a small step back and tried to come up with some sort of middle ground on copyright reform. Towards the end of that regime, a copyright reform bill was passed. In it, there was a so-called “remix” provision which allowed users to reuse content for things like YouTube as long as it fell within the realms of Fair Dealing. They also passed a law that brought non-commercial infringement liability down to a much more reasonable few hundred dollars.

Then, for the multinational corporations, they passed a law that outlaws circumventing copy protection. This effectively nullifies the so-called “remix” provision because if any kind of copy protection is applied, then the content can’t be reused legally. As you can already tell, these decisions were clearly made by people who have no clue how technology worked. As a result, a dart was thrown on the board and was called a “compromise”. The media was told after that everyone has a “little water with their wine” and the Conservatives dusted their hands of this.

That leads us to the current Trudeau government. Justin Trudeau was famous for telling the media “sunny ways” as he stepped towards Parliament. While it sounded all well and good, many, including us, were much more interested in action rather than nice words. Who could blame us? All we’ve known was government who are clueless about digital rights and the Internet passing laws after listening to multinational corporations interests.

After receiving broad part support, badly needed privacy reform was tabled. Nominated to the role of Innovation Minister was Navdeep Bains. Bains, for his part, actively pushed network neutrality (a critical concept to fostering innovation online) among other pro-Internet initiatives. Then there was the promise of getting Internet broadband to rural and indigenous communities as well. It was a digital agenda worth celebrating because, finally, there is a government that understands the Internet. It took decades of Internet history to get there, but hey, we finally made it.

… or so we thought.

It appears that corruption gradually set in. First, we got a rogue Heritage Minister pushing for a link tax law, going so far as to call the lack of one “immoral“. The voice of reason, Bains, left his position. The badly needed privacy reform bill stalled as other nasty legislation moved forward. Last year, this was enough for some to conclude that Canada has ejected its digital agenda.

Things only got worse from there.

As the push to connect rural and indigenous communities to broadband Internet went missing in action, there was the word that Rogers wanted to buy Shaw for $26 billion. That would only make Canada’s Internet and cell phone situation worse – and already, it’s so bad, it makes America’s situation seem pretty good by comparison.

Now, it appears that frustrations with the Canadian government are boiling over. University Law professor, Michael Geist, called the Trudeau government the most anti-Internet government in Canadian history. From his comments:

As I watched Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault yesterday close the Action Summit to Combat Online Hate, I was left with whiplash as I thought back to those early days. Today’s Liberal government is unrecognizable by comparison as it today stands the most anti-Internet government in Canadian history:

  • As it moves to create the Great Canadian Internet Firewall, net neutrality is out and mandated Internet blocking is in.
  • Freedom of expression and due process is out, quick takedowns without independent review and increased liability are in.
  • Innovation and new business models are out, CRTC regulation is in.
  • Privacy reform is out, Internet taxation is in.
  • Prioritizing consumer Internet access and affordability is out, reduced competition through mergers are in.
  • And perhaps most troublingly, consultation and transparency are out, secrecy is in.

This is not hyperbole. The Action Summit is a case in point. I was part of the planning committee and I am proud that the event produced two days of thoughtful discussion and debate, where both the importance and complexity of addressing online hate brought a myriad of perspectives, including from the major Internet platforms. There was none of that nuance in Guilbeault’s words, who spoke of the evil associated with the “web behemoths” and promised that his legislation would target content and Internet sites and services anywhere in the world provided it was accessible to Canadians. The obvious implications – much discussed in Internet circles in Ottawa – is that the government plans to introduce mandated content blocking to keep such content out of Canada as a so-called “last resort”. When combined with a copyright “consultation” launched this week that also raises Internet blocking, Guilbeault’s vision is to require Internet providers to install blocking capabilities, create new regulators and content adjudicators to issue blocking orders, dispense with net neutrality, and build a Canadian Internet firewall.

As I hinted in the comments section, this is more of a regression to the bad old days more than anything else. While it may be easy to paint the picture that this is the single worst government Canadian digital rights advocates has ever seen, what we’ve regressed to is the old days of “pro user zealots” and denouncing criticisms towards a not yet tabled legislation followed up by saying it’s too late, the bill is already tabled, now is the time to pass it.

What would be agreeable from our standpoint is that the Trudeau government took the greatest fall out of other governments we’ve been documenting over the last two decades. Other governments started off bad and went to straight up attacking the Internet. This government started off with having good ideas and good intentions and fell all the way to where other broken governments have fallen before. The fall is greatest, but it’s hard to call it the worst.

On the issue of secrecy, this is something other governments have been guilty of in the past. Harper’s Conservatives were quite notorious for their overall secrecy. It resulted in the famous catch phrase, “Conservative coverup”. Internet censorship is not exactly uncharted territory either. When Canada was considering implementing the failed three strikes law, the failed site blocking policy was also part of the conversations amongst multinational corporate lobbyists and government. What’s more is that multinational corporate interests have been demanding the notice-and-takedown censorship tool from at least 2005 – likely even further back then that.

In 2012, Canada passed a copyright modernization law that has been labeled as the toughest anti-piracy laws in the world. The law effectively makes Canada a hostile place to try to innovate and start a business among other things. It’s a big reason why you don’t see any bold new technological initiatives in Canada – because so much of that is outlawed.

What we are seeing today is a continued hostility towards innovation and digital rights. Canadian governments have always been anti-innovation and have serviced legacy corporations for nearly two decades at the expense of everyone else. The only reason a number of those laws haven’t been passed is because they so frequently died on the order-paper when an election is called. In fact, that alone is the sole reason why Canada doesn’t have in place laws that opened the floodgates to file-sharing lawsuits (though some corporations tried to skirt the law since in an effort to initiate the massive cash grab anyway). Now, Canadian MPs know better than to allow that to be imported into Canada.

Of course, this is not to say that the Trudeau government is one and the same with governments of old. In fact, Trudeau has even less of an excuse to go this rout. A big part of his election success was savvy use of social media. It’s not as though he is completely ignorant of how this whole “interwebs” thing works in the first place. The problem is, he seemingly doesn’t really care. This abandonment of digital rights has understandably infuriated digital rights advocates who were hoping to help breath new life into Canada’s innovation and technology sector.

With unreformed privacy laws and a push for regressive laws that will hinder innovation and digital rights, Canada will continue to be ill-prepared for this whole Internet thing – and Canadians will continue to pay the price for this.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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