Final Canadian French Debate: Taxing Web Giants and Privacy Discussed

The final French debate has taken place. While other debates have been lacklustre, it appears this debate managed to have more substance behind it.

The Canadian election is now approaching the final stretch. While debate has been pretty lacklustre on the issues of technology and digital rights, this debate seems to have had more substance behind it.

During the Maclean’s Debate, Cambridge Analytica was brought up during a question about Brexit. Unfortunately, the TVA debate, which is in French, is unavailable if you are an English speaker, so an analysis appears unlikely at this stage. After that, Canada saw the final English debate. The only mention about technology surrounded a comment made by Bloc leader Yves-Fran├žois Blanchet where big tech is somehow stealing from Canada. In what way Blanchet was going on that is unclear because the topic was never expanded on.

So, with three swings and misses, that left yesterday’s debate. There is a train of thought that, because it’s in French, it is therefore a debate about Quebec rather than the rest of the country. Shortly after the debates, some reporters surprisingly said that they were half tuning out the debate because it was boring. It’s surprising because of the three debates we’ve analyzed, it is this debate that wound up being the best one. This is simply because it covered a much larger range of topics. It also had fewer moments where leaders were simply arguing with each other to the point where no one could hear anything that was being said.

What’s more important specifically for us is the fact that technology issues was actually discussed. There wasn’t a lot of depth to the discussion, but the fact that there was any discussion at all wound up being an accomplishment.

The first thing we caught is the fact that technology giants were brought up during a segment about fiscal responsibility. Specifically, leaders discussed the idea of taxing the web giants. Some were proposing that tech giants pay an additional 3% on taxes. The Green Party said that they were in favour of adding additional taxes on the web giants. These comments are, of course, consistent with the party platform we analyzed earlier on in the election.

The NDP also said that they were interested in taxing large technology companies. This perspective may be an indirect reference in their platform. Specifically, the NDP said that they are about increasing taxes on wealthy corporations and not raising it for the middle class. While we didn’t hear this in the past, we are hearing it now and appears to be part of a much broader promise of large corporations in general paying more.

Bloc leader Blanchet also said that he is in favour of adding taxes for large technology corporations like Google and Netflix. It’s possible that this is a continuation of what we heard in the third debate where he suggested that large tech companies are somehow stealing from Canadians. Perhaps where he was going with that is that he feels that the large tech companies aren’t paying their fair share of taxes and intends to push for more taxes on these companies.

The debate also was wrapped in ideas for investment. While the debate was on taxing large technology companies, it seemed like a broad consensus among the leaders that the money would be used to invest in Canadian culture. At the very least, the parties all lined up to commit to investing in Canadian culture.

Shortly after, a rapid fire question was asked of all the candidates. To our surprise, it wound up being about privacy. The question revolved around data breaches and what the parties would commit to in light of these breaches. As they went around, as May commented, it wound up being unanimous that the parties vowed that they would increase awareness of security incidences like that. They all suggested that Canadians have a right to know if their information has been compromised.

On the surface, that sounds like a satisfactory and non-controversial commitment. Who could argue against something like that? The problem is that its a very softball question with answers that gloss over how deep the issue really is. It’s a bit like asking the candidates if wildfires are bad. You’re going to get unanimous consent that they are bad. You might have slightly different flavours in the response, but it is going to be consistent.

Once you dive deeper into the details, that’s where the question and answer starts to look inadequate. When an incident occurs and Canadian information is compromised, the question becomes whether or not Canadian privacy law is adequately enforced. Back in April, the BC and Canadian privacy commissioners had to go to the length of suing Facebook over a privacy controversy where Canadians were, in fact, affected. The commissioners didn’t necessarily have the tools to impose fines, so all Facebook had to say is that they disagree with the findings. This in light of the fact that Facebook was being fined in other parts of the world. The fact that the commissioners had to go to court as a last resort to hold Facebook accountable ultimately exposed just how weak Canadian privacy laws had become.

Some of the candidates did warm to the idea of adopting the European model which is in reference to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This is a positive sign because, as we’ve reported in the last year or so, the GDPR laws wound up paying dividends upon dividens upon dividends for European citizens. It got to the point that the GDPR laws became too successful because regulators charged with enforcing the laws found themselves being quickly overwhelmed with reports about data leaks and breaches. In the months since the laws came into force, very few fines were handed down simply because the workload became overwhelming. That ultimately became a commentary of just how massive the data problem had become.

It’s unclear how quickly the Canadian government would move forward with such a law, but it’s at least a positive sign that there is serious consideration of updating privacy laws in the first place on this overwhelmingly huge problem in the first place.

The unfortunate part is the fact that the debate never touched on the sister problem of governments wanting to crack down on security. That issue came into sharp focus in recent days where multiple governments demanded that effective encryption be eliminated online. This compelled more than 100 rights organizations to make a joint statement supporting security. In all of this, Facebook wound up being stuck in the middle as one of their senior staff members was summoned to appear before UK MPs to answer for Facebooks actions of protecting their users. Getting the parties to answer where they stand on the issue would have been nice especially given that the Canadian government already said that they are considering the idea of joining the war on encryption.

In addition to this is the discussion of cell phone and Internet costs. Multiple candidates agreed that the bills are too high. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh took the opportunity to reiterate his promise that he would put a cap on bills. This is, of course, consistent with the promise he made at the beginning of the election as well as what is found multiple times in the party platform.

So, all in all, it is a pretty substantial improvement over the previous debate. It was much less about the NDP and Green party trying to take a debate destined to have little substance and injecting it themselves. Really, the people that came out actually being the most believable were the people that ended up being the most prepared. The Green Party and the NDP, of course, had the most substantial background on technology. The Liberals, meanwhile, did have some comments about technology, but of course, their weakness is the fact that the platform wound up being rather vague, so it wound up being necessary for Trudeau to expand on their points. Unfortunately, that didn’t really happen, so the Liberals are no further along than they were before the debate.

As for the other leaders, the answers they did provide seemed consistent with what other people were saying, but because there was little to no information on their stances prior to the debate (Conservative’s don’t even have a platform at this stage as shocking as that sounds), the answers more or less became a “what that other person said” or simply off the cuff in hopes to skate by.

So, on this front, it just solidifies the positions of the parties. If you are concerned about digital rights and technology, the question really boils down to whether you might want to vote Green Party or NDP. Liberals are a distant third with the other parties not even worth considering at this point.

For the front-runners in this debate, both parties have merit for a vote. This assumes you are basing your decision on just technology and digital rights issues as well as what is known up to this point.

The Green Party is definitely the most well researched on the topics. They have a lot of positions on technology such as privacy, AI, and a variety of other topics. They also are clear that they would look into breaking up large media conglomerates that have become problematic in recent years in the country. The only problem is that they do support eliminating anonymous free speech which would really be the only point of hesitation.

The NDP, meanwhile do address a number of long-standing problems. This is namely centred around the high cost of cell phone and Internet bills. This is a long standing issue and introducing caps would be a fix to the problem. It might not address some of the underlying problems that have resulted in monopolies jacking up fees in the first place, but it is, at least, a positive step in the right direction. The only problem is that the stances are nowhere near in depth as the Green Party. So, a reason to hesitate for voting for them would be the fact that while they have a few strong positions, there are plenty of gaps to mind (such as a stance on encryption or AI for instance).

So, either way you go, you have plenty of reasons for that decision. Those reasons are quite justified as well.

We’ll continue to monitor the election for any major developments. We are still waiting for the Conservative Party platform for analysis, so that is one thing we are anticipating at this stage. Otherwise, we might see additional announcements that flesh out ideas better. If you are sick of the election coverage, well, it’s over in 10 days, so you won’t have much longer to wait before it’s all over.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.



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