Green Party of Canada Unveils Platform, Addresses Numerous Tech Issues

The Green Party of Canada has unveiled their election platform. It addresses a number of different tech related issues.

When it comes to modern technology issues, the Canadian election is really starting to boil down to a two party race between the NDP and Green Party. During the first leaders debate, Green Party leader Elizabeth May delivered the first shot at pushing these important issues to the forefront. During an odd question about Brexit, May squeezed in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. While the point she raised did fall back into the background again, it did show that the party is serious about these issues.

The NDP, for its part, quickly rebounded by announcing a plan to cap Internet and cell phone bills. The move clearly showed that they haven’t forgotten about the issues. So, a quick recovery on the NDP’s part to say the least.

Now, the Green Party is making the next move by releasing their full party platform. The platform itself is available on the Green Party’s official website.

Proposals on Social Media and Traditional Media

The full platform itself has a number of interesting proposals. From the platform (PDF) on page 44:

A vibrant, diverse media sector is a prerequisite for a healthy democracy. Traditional media are withering and disappearing from small markets due to a combination of digital and on-line competition and corporate concentration of ownership.

A Green government will:
• Reform anti-trust laws to enable the break-up of media conglomerates.
• Close the loophole that exempts social media platforms from collecting taxes on advertising and ensure all government advertising is placed in Canadian publications.
• Increase funding to CBC and Radio Canada by $315 million per year until the per-capita level of funding is equal to that of the BBC.
• Reform the governance structure of CBC/Radio Canada to remove the potential for political interference in board appointments.

So, a lot of issues being addressed in this short section. Large corporations monopolizing various spaces is a well known problem in Canada for a considerable time now. One example is Bell owning one of the big three carriers in Canada. At the same time, they also own large players on the media landscape. There are obviously other examples of this, but you can already see the questions raising over what that means for competition. So, the Green Party is saying that they have an interest in taking another look at that just based on that first point alone.

The second point is quite impressive because we weren’t aware of the issue of social media platforms being exempt from collecting taxes on advertisements. So, there are aspects of these issues that even we didn’t catch.

The last two points, of course, are long-standing issues for the CBC. That last point, of course, has some history behind it. When the Conservative party of Canada under Stephen Harper took power, there were low key stories about him trying to pack the board with Conservative friendly voices. The idea at the time was to try and make the CBC less Liberal Party friendly and more Conservative Party friendly. The results wound up being mixed, but the fact that an attempt was made to influence the broadcaster clearly wasn’t forgotten by the Greens.

Proposals on Cell Phone Infrastructure and the Internet

The Green Party also pointed to issues of network neutrality and cell phones in their platform (from page 46):

Currently there is a digital divide separating those with such access and those without. The Green Party supports the government’s Connectivity Strategy but has concerns about the introduction of 5G technology and which companies should be involved in delivering this next generation of connectivity. We are also concerned that the regulatory structure governing cellular and internet service results in Canadians paying much higher fees than people in other countries.

A Green government will:

• Strike a parliamentary committee to examine the implications of introducing 5G technology, including security issues and impacts on weather forecasting, and make recommendations on how and if Canada should proceed.
• Guard against threats to net neutrality.

With respect to the second point, there have been a number of threats to net neutrality in Canada in the past. One of the biggest ones was when large corporations tried to implement Internet censorship in Canada. One of the proposals was that the government would set up an agency and taxpayers would bear the cost of maintaining an Internet censorship list that ISPs would be forced to follow along. That way, the large corporations can indirectly dictate what websites Canadians can visit and what ISPs need to censor by law. While these proposals are being pushed back, they are by no means dead. By no means is this the only threat, but it is one example in which net neutrality has come under threat in recent years in Canada.

Consumer Protections Including Right to Repair, Cell Phone Competition, and Cryptocurrency

Moving up to page 47, we see even more interesting proposals:

A Green economy is built on durability. Products are built to last and to be repaired. It also protects citizens from the predatory business practices of credit card and telecom corporations and banks. Setting product and service standards for consumer protection are well within the purview of government. A Green government will drop the hands-off approach. It’s time to intervene.

• Enact Right to Repair legislation that requires producers to provide consumers or repair shops with replacement parts, software and tools for diagnosing, maintaining or repairing their products, for a fair price, and to reset any electronic security that may disable the device during diagnosis, maintenance or repair.
• Limit credit card interest rates to a maximum of 10 percentage points above the Bank of Canada prime rate.
• Limit ATM fees to $1 per transaction and prohibit financial institutions from charging their own customers ATM fees.
• Amend CRTC regulations to increase competition in the provision of cellular and internet services to consumers and decouple payments for cell phones from cell services.
• Enact provisions to protect consumers and investors from fraud and theft in the cryptocurrency spheres, and direct Revenue Canada and law enforcement agencies to develop practical methods for preventing the use of cryptocurrencies for money laundering and funding terrorism.

For the first point, Canadians might not really get what “right to repair” is, but for American’s, this has been a long-standing fight brought on by large corporations trying to put a further squeeze on consumers. What sparked this is that some companies are trying to control your ability to repair something that has broken down. So, what they do is put in place special protections that prevent third parties from tampering or repairing that item. That way, consumers have to go to designated manufacturer repair outlets. With the artificial monopoly, those corporations can charge whatever they want. In short, it takes the concept of DRM and tries to implement it into physical items. So, really, it’s impressive that we see it here in the platform.

The second to last point is something we’ve seen touched on earlier in the election. Earlier, the NDP announced the cell phone and Internet bill cap. As we pointed out in the article, the blame can very easily be placed at the feet of corporate monopolies. The high fees is certainly a symptom of that corporate stranglehold on the market. What the Green Party appears to be doing is going directly to the root of the problem and proposing something that would very likely fix the problem in the first place. This proposal actually makes the NDP’s proposal look like it’s simply addressing the symptom of the problem.

Lobbying

Moving ahead to page 74, we see this bit:

Strengthen the Lobbying Act to require greater transparency and prevent “revolving doors” between political life, the public service and lobbying.

This looks unrelated at first glance, but we know from experience that this has been a huge problem in the copyright debate. When the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA) (Now Music Canada) heavily lobbied the Canadian government to pass laws that would allow big record labels to sue teenagers for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the basis of a flimsy accusation of infringement, the best Canadian’s got in terms of research is that the organization met with someone to discuss intellectual property. This is just researching how much lobbying took place during a normal government. When fundraisers take place, all records indicate is just a massive list of random names (sometimes, those people’s names were abbreviated).

At best, we get a few vague notes about someone talked to someone. Something along a particular subject was discussed, but Canadian’s will never know of specifics or if money or “gifts” were “exchanged” or anything else for that matter. While politicians like to talk a big game about transparency, actually researching specifics leaves a lot to be desired.

Privacy

The platform has an entire section devoted to privacy. From page 75:

The flip side of increasing government transparency is protecting the privacy rights of Canadians. According to Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien, Canada’s privacy legislation is “sadly falling behind what is the norm in other countries.” A Green government will also curtail the surveillance powers of security agencies and prohibit the surreptitious reach of corporations.

• Change the law to require the Communications Security Establishment and CSIS to get a warrant before intruding on Canadians’ communications.
• Prohibit the routine surveillance of Canadians who protest against the government and the sharing of protesters and NGO staff information with the National Energy Board, and others.
• Significantly increase the powers of the Privacy Commissioner, in particular to protect identity and personal data, and to enforce privacy laws.
• Require companies to grant access to all information they hold on an individual, and to delete personal information from company databases when requested by that person. Individuals would have the “right to be forgotten.”
• Establish a parliamentary inquiry to recommend modernizing privacy laws governing the burgeoning “internet of things”.
• Create mandatory data breach reporting for all government departments, companies, banks and political parties.
• Regulate Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to ensure that only actual people, with verifiable identities, are able to publish on those platforms.
• Prohibit cyber surveillance and bulk collection of data by intelligence and police agencies.
• Require that internet service providers may only release data when required to do so by warrant, except in emergency situations.
• Require political parties to follow the Privacy Act, without exceptions.

The second point addresses a long standing threat of dragnet surveillance in Canada. This goes back to nearly the beginning of my news writing career when successive governments proposed mass surveillance of Canadian communications. For Canadian’s, this is known as Lawful Access. Privacy rights advocates sometimes refer to it as (L)awful Access.

The third point is a huge one in that we’ve seen, on a near daily basis, massive data leaks and breaches. In one instance, two separate privacy commissioners tried to take Facebook to task for mishandling Canadian’s personal information. When that story broke, it became painfully clear just how much the commissioners don’t have much power to enforce laws. At best, they can wag their finger and tell offenders to “don’t do that again”. With Facebook, they did absolutely everything they could to try and hold them accountable… by going to court and suing the website. If found guilty, Facebook could face, well, no fine at all. Maybe a stern look from officials or something.

Certainly, Canada wasn’t always like this on the privacy front. Years ago, the idea of having privacy commissioners was practically a revolutionary idea. Now with Europe enacting the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and US state attorney general’s (and even regulators) levelling fines against companies who break the law, Canada, by comparison, has fallen behind in protecting the privacy rights of citizens. In the Canadian case, Facebook simply said that they disagree with the findings. It’s as if to say, “Yeah? What are you gonna do about it?” knowing that they can flaunt the privacy laws however they see fit. Nothing significant is going to happen if they do, after all. So, it’s particularly interesting that at least the Green Party is saying, “Not on our watch.”

There is also a point about the “right to be forgotten” issue. This is a hugely controversial issue and has been for a few years at this stage. For some, this can be a case of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

So, the basis for “right to be forgotten” is that some information that is years old might be damaging to an individual. So, if that person applies for a job, an employer might use a search engine to find out more about that person. About 10 years ago, that person happened to post a picture of himself smoking a joint. That employer is completely against marijuana in all forms and considers that candidate unfit for the job. Well, what if that person is no longer a user? It might not matter to the employer because all that employer sees is a druggy.

The above is a good example of why people propose these “right to be forgotten” laws. What if that person wants that picture removed from searches because that person is now different today. It’s a response to the whole concept of “the Internet doesn’t forget”.

Now, there is a problem with this. On the flip side, there are free speech implications involved here. In some instances, people were using the “right to be forgotten” to delete unflattering posts about them. It’s not about something about what they did in the past that’s no longer relevant, but rather, current events that are in the public interest. As such, the “right to be forgotten” has been used as a tool to censor the Internet. This, of course, goes way beyond the intent of the laws in the first place. The EFF wrote about this sort of activity in 2016 if you want a third party example of this.

So, in this case, the Green Party would have to walk a very fine line on the issue. It’s possible to get laws like this right, but it’s not exactly an easy line to walk here.

The two points following that are definitely sorely needed in Canada. With respect to the first point about privacy surrounding the Internet of things, we’ve seen information leaks in the past with devices. Back in July, smart home maker SmartMate was found to be leaking customer information. Also in July, there was a proposal by an Alphabet owned company to turn Toronto into a so-called “Smart City”. That, of course, raised huge privacy concerns thanks to the idea that even the concrete could be monitoring your every movement for the purpose of selling you advertising. Some were questioning how all that personal information was stored. Not surprising since we’ve already seen at least one Smart City suffer from a massive data leak.

Then there are questions about what information is being fed through other smart home devices like Amazon Alexa or Google Home products. Security experts have examined devices like that and know they are communicating to a huge number of servers in real time.

So, with such a huge number of issues related to Internet of Things devices and their impacts on privacy, it is totally understandable that an inquiry is needed at this stage to figure out what governments need to do to protect the privacy rights of Canadian’s.

The next point discussing data breach notification laws. Again, this is definitely something that is needed in Canada. If a leak or breach is discovered, there has to be a way of creating transparency whenever data is leaked or breached. What happened in the past is that if a company suffers from a leak or a breach, they say nothing. The reason they say nothing is that they feel that, among other things, there is a risk of losing money and reputation. So, rather than be responsible, they hide the fact that their information was compromised. This left Canadians to fend for themselves who only know that there is suddenly fraudulent activity on their credit cards and they have no idea how that happened. So, something that is needed to say the least.

The next point deals with demanding that social media forces users to use real names before they can publish on those platforms. This is clearly in response to false information being spread by bot accounts like what happened with the last US election. Essentially, Russia created whole “troll factories” to go on to social media to spread false information for the purpose of electing now president Donald Trump. Mass bot accounts were used on Twitter to try and fraudulently increase the rankings of false information. Many know the profound impact such activities had such as the fake “pizzagate” story for example. Clearly, that point is meant to prevent such activity.

The problem is that it can leave people more vulnerable to reprisals with what they say online. If you look on page 68 of the platform, there is a whole section devoted to advancing the rights of the LGBTQI2+ community. One of the ways you do this is to protect anonymous free speech. What some people do is go online and, through anonymous messaging, seek advice whether on health, social, or other issues. When you take that ability to remain anonymous, you also take away some forms of communication. If someone happens to be gay and is living with a highly religious family who is against advancing the rights of that community, then that person might need that form of anonymous communication. Banning that speech on big platforms would, at minimum, make that communication more complicated. If that family finds out that that one member is, for example, gay, what kind of social repercussions could take place?

It’s possible that a response might be that there needs to be a balance struck to defend anonymous speech online, while at the same time, protecting our democratic institutions. Unfortunately, we honestly don’t see how that would be possible on a technological front. What anonymous speech do you bar? What do you let slide? What is regulated? What mechanism do you put in place to protect anonymous whistle blowing? Where is the line? Are you barring someone from political speech that’s in the public interest because they fear political reprisals? You’ll find yourself getting into the weeds extremely quick without even getting to any kind of technological solution.

The second to last point talks about ISPs only being required to release information only in the case of emergency situations or when a warrant is involved. While this hasn’t necessarily been a big issue to our knowledge, it threatens to be a big problem in the future. This is thanks to the constant push for warrantless wiretapping. At the very least, this proposals stops such concepts dead in its tracks. So, that’s also a nice proposition.

The final point talks about requiring federal parties to follow the privacy act. This appears to be in response to the data various parties collect on Canadian’s during elections. The concern is that the parties gather analytical data for the purpose of targeting messages towards you. The problem here is that political parties get special exceptions that other companies cannot get. At the very least, this will level the playing field.

Missed Opportunities

While what we see is quite an impressive showing of issues, it’s not to say that it’s perfect by any means. Besides the contradictory note about banning anonymous speech, there are a few areas that don’t appear addressed.

The biggest missed opportunity we see is that there is no mention about copyright laws. Currently, there is a lot of pressure to take the current exceedingly long copyright term of life plus 50 years and extend it to an even more extreme of life plus 70 years. We didn’t find any mention of this.

Additionally, there is no mention of encryption in the platform. Currently, there is considerable pressure to crack down on effective security from other countries. It’s a self-destructive push that would make security worse for every day Canadians. Unfortunately, there isn’t really any mention of encryption anywhere in the platform.

Fair dealing is another area that could have been touched on. Right now, Canada has a worse system than the US where you can legally re-use something and not violate copyright laws. This fair use system has helped increase the American economy significantly. Unfortunately, no mention was made in the platform. An example where Canada can strengthen its fair dealing law is to permit sampling for the purpose of remixing. That would help those who create music develop their skills and allow Canadians to create new content.

Some have called for the reformation of crown copyright by saying that crown copyright should be banned. The idea behind this is that some content is publicly funded. Unfortunately, the results of the publicly funded content is held by crown copyright, forbidding certain uses that are, after all, taxpayer funded.

Additionally, there is no mention of whether the Green Party will continue the policies of keeping file-sharing fines at bay. At the same time, there is no mention of enforcing laws that ban demanding payment through Canada’s current notice-and-notice system. As it stands now, the laws say rights holders shouldn’t do it, but if they choose to abuse the system, no repercussions will come of it. Of course, average Canadians wouldn’t know any better anyway. Since some in the system are intent on abusing the system, then fines probably should be in order to send a message that fraud isn’t tolerated in Canada.

So, those are some of the points we don’t really see addressed in the platform.

Overall Thoughts

Generally speaking, we set the bar extremely low when it comes to expectations surrounding party platforms. All too often, some parties just don’t come anywhere near that bar that you could really trip over. Having said that, this platform is pretty impressive as it covers a whole wide range of issues that really aren’t that controversial.

Our only problems revolve around banning anonymous speech. Another point that could go either way is the subject of the right to be forgotten. Otherwise, it’s mostly points that we don’t see addressed.

At any rate, this is a huge step forward for the party. Out of all the parties, the Green Party is currently leading with a coherent strategy on technology related issues. This in spite of the fact that people try and frame the party as a “single-issue party”. What will be interesting to see is if other parties will do something to at least catch up to the Green party. As of now, the NDP really is the only other party that’s even in front of the starting block at this stage.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.