Digital Rights Not Really A Part of the English Leaders Debate

The platforms aren’t the only place to look for digital rights. We take a look at the English leaders debate.

It’s been a long-running tradition to include leaders debates in Canada during an election. The format allows the different leaders to interact with each other to highlight similarities and differences.

How We Got Here

This election has been a rather odd one. In the past, elections during minority governments were often called when parties reach an impasse. There is a critical debate being held and many of the parties decide that maybe they can settle the debate through the ballot box. That ultimately did not happen this election. Instead, the election was called when the parties were seemingly getting along as well as you could hope for.

For a large portion of the election, the question was, “why are we having an election?” The thing is, if you have to ask, you are off to a bad start. It should be very obvious why an election is called. The question really shouldn’t even be asked in the first place. Yet, it is one of the big questions in the election. Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, gave a rather weak answer in that the election was called to decide how to move forward on the pandemic. It’s not really a response that makes a whole lot of sense and one that led many Canadians to conclude that the real reason was to get a majority government. Let’s face it, it’s hard to really disagree with this perspective.

As the election dragged on, even if very short, it was hard to really find any particular issue that moved people in particular. Vaccinations are rolling out. The COVID-19 pandemic has become the pandemic of the unvaccinated. The problems about vaccine rollouts and hospital capacities have been focused, rightfully, at the provincial level of government rather than the federal government. Most Canadians are more focused on how they are going to get through this pandemic. Some are going back to work worried about COVID-19 outbreaks at the workplace. Others are still at home wondering if this pandemic will ever end.

What’s more is that there is the chaotic pullout of Afghanistan and the global chip shortage that has really put a number of areas in the consumer markets in a bind. While there may be issues at the top of mind for Canadians, so many of them are not focused on the Canadian government. At best, domestically at the federal level, there is the topic of unmarked graves and reconciliation, though that topic seems to be in a state of “where do we go from here?”.

To make matters worse, the platforms released by the parties running are less than inspiring if you believe in digital rights. In fact, large portions of different platforms seem to be more rehashes of old ideas with the promise of, “don’t worry, this time will be different! Honest!”

So, it wouldn’t be a real surprise if voter engagement is going to be low this election. Honestly, after what we’ve seen in the election, who would really blame them? While, on the surface, that seems to be some minor superficial thing, the problem is that major media outlets partially depend on an engaged audience to drive up ratings. So, the challenge for them this time around is how to make this sleepy election interesting. To be fair to the media, there have certainly been efforts being made. This includes spicing things up by seeing if they can see a re-ignition on the abortion debate, gun control, and even showcasing what is technically described as assault on two leaders.

Unfortunately, that resulted in, at best, a flash in the pan that really didn’t have any lasting impact. So, with this context of having a very boring election with seemingly nothing able to add a nice flow of energy, the media pulled out the big guns and tried to focus in on the leaders debate. Some were pushing the narrative about how these leaders debates can be crucial in an election even though, more often then not, they don’t generally have a very big impact on the results of the election. At best, there is a minor bump in the poll numbers, but those distortions in the polling dissipate over time.

The Debate Itself

So, in retrospect, it probably isn’t a surprise that, at the very least, the English debate was seemingly designed to be highly adversarial. You can see that in the opening question where the leaders, generally, started off with quite tough questions. Some handled these questions better than others. Unsurprisingly, things devolved during the debates to shouting matches – which it was seemingly designed specifically to do in order to try and drive up those ratings. Little surprise that Canadians didn’t really connect with the debates all that well this year.

Of course, we are on top of it and we wanted to share with you some highlights of the debates. The full debate is currently up on YouTube and can be watched below:

Indeed, it is a two hour clip with, at one point at least, a weird jump cut during the Green Party leaders turn. Still, we watched this two hour clip trying to get a sense, if that is possible, on where party leaders stood on digital rights.

The Mentions of Digital Rights

For the first half an hour, there was a very brief mention of cyber security on the topic of China. It was a sort of “blink and you’ll miss it” moment. Since it was during one of the moments where people were talking over top of each other, it obviously didn’t expand beyond a mere mention.

Throughout the first hour, there were actually parts that had promise of bringing up digital rights. One big one was during the segment about reconciliation which is where we thought we would also hear mention of connecting people to broadband in under-served locations, but that never came up.

At one hour and sixteen minutes in is where we actually got our first mention on this. It was on the topic of affordability where Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole mentioned the affordability of cell phone’s and Internet. Sadly, no other leader picked up on that point and the focus was strictly on seniors.

At one hour and forty eight minutes in, when NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh was asked how he intends on finding the cash to pay for the programs to help Canada get out of the pandemic and on the path to recovery, Singh responded by, in part, saying that he wants to increase a tax on the large tech giants like Amazon.

So, after two hours, there was a mere mention of cyber security and two mentions of something that was even remotely related. So, if you care about digital rights, the whole two hours really didn’t feature anything informative – especially if you have already read the platforms already like we have.

Why the Debate is a Bust

From the perspective of organizing these debates, I would say that this debate was quite embarrassing. You’d almost get the impression that anything related to affordability alone was strictly a senior problem. This despite the fact that people who are of working age are struggling to make ends meet. Many realize after getting post-secondary education that education really doesn’t count for much in various job markets. That is far from the only issue seemingly glossed over.

What issues were discussed contained maybe brief informative soundbites that were never expanded on. It was hard to really form an informed opinion on anything at the end of it all. Some leaders certainly tried to offer something informative from time to time, but this was blocked off by interruptions from the reporters or the time running out.

What Could Have Been Debated

Let’s not forget just how huge the issue of digital rights are. It may sound like some niche topic on the surface, but the topic is so large, that it doesn’t matter if you care on your own about it or not. In fact, you are effectively forced to care about it sooner or later because you have no choice in the matter. So, what are examples of this?

Privacy reform. Companies are losing people’s personal information at an alarming rate and Canada is one of the few G7 countries where there doesn’t seem to be any consequences for companies that are negligent in handling people’s personal information. Most people may not even be aware of how huge this problem is.

The only thing they will know is that, suddenly, they lost access to their account. Either that or they suddenly have someone on the other side of the country racking up credit card debt in their name. Some might suddenly get scam calls at all hours of the day. Some may learn that their information was part of a trove of data in a database file floating around on the dark web. Regardless, that’s when reality crashes in that, yes, digital rights matter. This is because the government has taken such a hands off approach that the only form of recourse if a company did something wrong was to litigate on your own dime. Not something the average Canadian can afford these days.

Freedom of expression. Bill C-10 was a huge topic for debate. Creators, including us, are rightfully freaking out over this because it means that their road to success is brutal with Bill C-10 had it become law. It meant that large corporations would be able to have an unfair advantage over smaller creators, thus killing their chances of becoming successful themselves.

Then there is the online harms proposal which would, as it stands now, kill off smaller websites in Canada by establishing impossible to follow guidelines with the hammer of $10 million fines for those who fail to comply. Unless you are shutting down voluntarily, you’re getting fined at some point. If you are an entrepreneur and want to start a business online (something that is becoming even more common with COVID-19), you might find yourself completely out of luck. Best case scenario, you have to rely exclusively on a large platform bound by whatever rules they set instead of being permitted to strike out on your own.

On top of that, there is the link tax that is being pushed. Now, we know that the media these days want to stay away from this topic because the link tax would effectively eliminate their competition, but it is a huge issue for smaller independent journalists everywhere. Linking, as you know, is one of the very building blocks that makes up the world wide web today. Take that away and you attack those very core building blocks. Linking is not a crime, but rather, a method to show that you are actually very credible. In no discipline is referencing material considered infringement of any kind. Yet, the media wants to make linking a quasi form of copyright infringement even though the legality is clear that it is not.

The power of tech giants. This is a topic that is much more media friendly because this is part of their direct competition. To be fair, the large tech giants are gaining quite a bit of power that is growing increasingly excessive. While there has been some hand-wringing over what to do about it, different policies seemingly directed at limiting the undue influence of large tech giants have often backfired. Those policies have actually increased the giants grip on the Internet rather than loosen it. So, what are we to do about this?

Misinformation and racism. This is another topic that is a more traditional media friendly topic. What role does the government have in fighting online discrimination and the fight against misinformation? This is a very tricky topic that has a million different ideas for solutions – some solutions obviously better than others.

Fostering online innovation. What can government do to foster smaller start-ups who want to take on the big scary world of the Internet? If you launch a website in the hopes that you can build something big, what should the government be doing to help that?

Encryption. While the US and Australian governments seem to be more interested in making the Internet a less safe and secure place by demanding backdoors, what can the Canadian government do to make Canadians more secure online? Should Canada help support the security community build better encryption to keep people’s communication safe?

The CRTC and wireless competition. For years, if not decades, Canadians have seen competition in the wireless and Internet sector slip further and further into non-existence. Carriers are notorious for continually increasing rates and only begrudgingly dropping them when the customer complains. There is almost no real competition to speak of. This lack of competition has resulted in worse quality of service and higher bills.

While there have been schemes to fix this problem in the past (such as a spectrum auction that saw the big four gobble all the spectrum up), or bringing in Wind Mobile (which the carriers lobbied the government to tighten ownership rules and increase red tape to the point that the carrier was driven back out of the country), none of these solutions bore any fruit. What’s worse is that there is a plan for Rogers to buy Shaw, making the situation substantially worse as well as Canada’s regulator, the CRTC, becoming a textbook example of regulatory capture. How does Canada even begin to get out of this mess?

The topics are endless on this topic and they affect Canadian’s. I would be hard pressed to see any Canadian reading this article right now and not nodding their head to at least one of the above topics. Yet, the debate was guided in a way to steer clear to all of the above. While two leaders at least became successful in squeezing in a mention of anything at all, the topics were largely ignored. The topics are there. It matters to Canadians. Yet, you’d think that these issues don’t exist in Canada based on the two hours people saw in the above clip. We’ll say it again: embarrassing.

If Canadian’s look at the debate and say, “I didn’t get anything out of that.” That would be a very reasonable reaction. It’s probably one of the more out of touch debates we’ve seen yet.

How The Leaders Performed

As for the performance of the leaders, it’s generally pretty hit and miss. I think out of all the party leaders, Yves-François Blanchet came out the worst. You can almost get a sense that the strategy going in was to try and find ways of being offended and be offended on behalf of Quebec. This is because he wants to be the person that is representative of the province. Indeed, he tried to spin the debate and the leaders as an attack on Quebec as if people are saying that Quebecers are inherently racist. The problem is, if you are representing Quebecers, representing yourself as thin skinned and easily offended doesn’t paint Quebecers in a positive light either. This was a very hardball debate by Canadian standards and the tantrums he threw doesn’t make him look like a good leader by any measure.

Some the tantrums he did throw were are the moderators. Towards the end, he complained endlessly how he wasn’t given as much time. The problem is, that was actually his own undoing. Notice at the first part of the debate where he regularly answered questions with time to spare for his turn. That actually was a big culprit in seeing him nearly 5 minutes behind the other leaders. The other leaders actually typically used up their time and wrapped up their comments after the clock hit zero. Those seconds do add up after a while.

Making matters worse was him fighting with the moderator often which ate away his time even more to speak about the issues. He also made more brief points during the free for all portions of the debate and sometimes didn’t step in. Blanchet wound up being his own worst enemy throughout the debate if his big complaint was that he wasn’t given as much speaking time.

The second worst leader in the debate is definitely Erin O’Toole. He very frequently veered off topic and relied heavily on his talking points in the process. As a result, he ended up coming off as evasive to the questions and even very clearly dodged some of the questions as well. Some of his points really didn’t make much sense (which were actively exploited on by the other leaders). So, a performance that really fell flat from my perspective.

In the middle of the pack was Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau. You could really tell that his plan throughout the debate was to simply coast through and let the media declare him the winner by default. His problem was that his track record really sank his chances at coming off as successful. This is because the other leaders basically turned him into low hanging fruit and bashed him successfully on his own record. So, I think he really came off badly beaten as a result.

The second best leader was definitely Jagmeet Singh of the NDP. I could really tell that he wanted to embrace his talking points coming in, but talking points alone won’t win you a debate. So, he did wind up veering off topic a lot towards the beginning of the debate to rely on them. It wasn’t until the second half of the debate that he really started finding his footing. After that, he gradually took on topics head on and ran with them. At the end of the debate, he wound up looking like the best out of the leaders, but definitely a slow start.

For me, the leader that came out on top was Annamie Paul, leader of the Green Party. The reason why was the first hour and a half of the whole debate. While many try and paint the Green Party as a single issue party, Paul actually handled every topic that was thrown her way in that time period very well. Yes, she performed well on environmental issues as expected, but she handled several other topics extremely well. Not only that, but she probably delivered the best blow in the debate. That moment was her taking on Blanchet over the invitation which really made him lose it. It ended with the icing on the cake of her saying, “It’s my time.” She successfully exploited Blanchet’s temper, his position on race, and the rules of the debate all at the exact same time. I call that impressive. If there ever was a knockout punch in the debate, that was it in my books.

Where Paul started to slip was in the last half hour of the debate. I don’t know if it was mental fatigue setting in by the end or what, but she really started answering everything with talk about unity and diverse voices regardless of the question being asked. So, while a bit of a face plant towards the end of the debate, I still say she was the one that came out on top in this debate.

The Quality of the Management of the Debate

Moderation-wise, this debate was pretty touch and go. The moderator could have been less combative at the beginning which really set the tone for the rest of the debate. The role of the moderator is to maintain order in the debate, after all. There was the programming error part way through where she nearly skipped Trudeau by accident (which Rosemary Barton actually had to step in and immediately fix). Then, she sometimes forgot the order of the leaders trying to get in on the debate which actually started screwing over O’Toole towards the end. So, the debate could have been handled better, really.

Then there was how the debate played out itself which, as you can tell by the above, it was probably the worst aspect of the debate. The topics were hit and miss to begin with. Environment was a good segment, though the COVID recovery segment was a bit of a trainwreck. Rather than ask the leaders how they want to lead Canada out of the pandemic, that recovery could have been a segue to more down to earth topics. There was already a whole section about COVID-19 to begin with, why not, at least, give some breathing space for “smaller” topics like technology and digital rights, student debt, youth unemployment, and a host of other topics? It honestly felt more like time filler because the people behind the debate didn’t want to cover anything else.

Conclusions

At any rate, this was definitely a huge disappointment in the end. The election was already quite sleepy to begin with. No real topics form the overarching ballot box question. The theme of “why are we having an election?” persisted throughout with good reason. Despite the media’s efforts to present standout issues, there really wasn’t any that actually justified the election. The media is obviously going to be motivated to make these debates interesting. Unfortunately, the English leaders debate wound up being a flop overall. Even worse was that despite the huge array of important digital rights issues, none were really discussed.

A wasted opportunity.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.



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