Liberal Party Releases Party Platform, Choose Vague?

With a number of parties having already released their platforms, it seems that the Liberal Party is now doing the same. We examine it just like the others.

We are getting through most of the larger parties at this stage. Today, Freezenet has learned that the Liberal Party of Canada is releasing their party platform for the current election. It is available on the official Liberal Party website. In our examination, we’ll be looking at digital and technology issues.

Previously, we examined a number of other party platforms. The first party we examined is the Green Party mainly because they wound up being the first out of the gate. While our expectations were low, the platform wound up far exceeding our expectations. As a result, the bar was set quite high.

After a while, the People’s Party of Canada released their platform. Unfortunately, it made a few vague references to free speech, but offered nothing else. Shortly after, we were able to examine the Bloc’s platform. If a vague reference is bad, nothing would ultimately be worse. Try as we might, we didn’t find any technology or digital issues in the platform.

So, it is interesting to hear that the Liberal Party has now released their platform. So, we did some digging to examine it in a fair and neutral manner like the other parties. Again, we are looking at the PDF file (PDF).

Reference to Cell Phone Bills

The first point we did come across is a reference to cell phone bills on page 10. It reads as follows:

Cell Phone Bills

We will help cut the cost of cell and wireless services by 25 per cent.

As Canadians, we pay some of the highest prices in the world for cell phone services, while Canadian telecom companies are among the most profitable in the developed world.

To help lower monthly cell phone bills and bring costs in line with what people pay in other countries, we will move forward with cutting the cost of these services by 25 per cent in the next two years by using the government’s regulatory powers, saving an average middle class family of four nearly $1,000 per year.

This promise echoes the previous announcement which we noted. It doesn’t really offer much further than what we heard from the announcement. When we heard the announcement previously, it seemed like the Liberals were trying to copy the NDP. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty vague promise with not much in the way of details. So, it’s not really clear how this is going to be accomplished. It just says that government regulatory powers will be used. So, all we are left with is speculation as to what is meant specicially.

After that, there is references to clean technology, but that is outside of the scope of what we cover.

Universal High Speed Internet

We then need to go all the way down to page 22 which talks about the next tech related issue. That is, apparently, Universal High Speed Internet. That section reads as follows:

Universal High-Speed Internet

We will ensure that every Canadian has access to high-speed internet by 2030.

For small businesses looking to reach customers around the world, seniors who want to stay in touch with family and friends, or students who want to move home for the summer but still need to be able to take online courses or apply for work, high-speed internet is a necessity, not a luxury.

To ensure that every person in Canada has access to reliable, high-speed internet – including the 1.5 million households that would otherwise be underserved – we will move forward with building a fully connected Canada, including our rural, remote and northern communities. Earlier this year, we set a national target to ensure that 95 per cent of Canadian homes and businesses will have highspeed internet by 2026, and 100 per cent by 2030, no matter where they are located in the country. This ambitious plan will help businesses grow, create new jobs, and connect more people to the resources, services and information they need to build a better future.

Of course, a problem with this is that all of these dates are well after the next election. Additionally, access to high speed is one thing, but the cost is another matter entirely. High speed Internet access to rural areas has been a very long standing problem in Canada with ISPs largely sticking with more populated areas. So, the question then becomes if this is going to happen with these long far off dates staying fixed, who is going to foot the bill? Is it the government, the ISPs, or a combination of the two? Even then, what are the dollar figures anyway? Also, will ISPs just keep all the profits after? How will revenues from Internet access be divvied up after?

So, it’s an interesting and ambitious idea, but there are a lot of details missing here.

National Security

Next, moving on to page 39, there is a reference to cybersecurity here:

National Security

We will keep people safe, while safeguarding Canadians’ rights and freedoms.

Canadians should feel safe in their communities, and confident that their rights are being respected and upheld.

In the last four years, we have helped make our borders more secure, and taken steps to make sure that our security agencies are better able to manage cybersecurity threats, including threats to our democracy. At a time of greater uncertainty and unrest, we need to build on this progress, not slow down.

Naturally, this piqued our interest. We thought there would be more details of what they are going to say on cybersecurity, but we then had to skip to page 40 to get this:

Privacy and Data Protection

We will protect consumers’ rights online, and bring forward new regulations for large digital companies.

Today, a limited number of very large companies hold an extraordinary amount of personal data about Canadians. This can help to make things like online shopping and connecting with family and
friends easier and more convenient, but the lack of regulation for online platforms like Facebook and Google – as well as companies that possess large amounts of data, like banks and credit card companies – also means that people have less control over their own personal information.

To make sure that people can exercise more control over their online lives and the use of their personal data, we will move forward with Canada’s Digital Charter. Overseen and enforced by a more powerful Privacy Commissioner, the Charter will establish a new set of online rights, to help people feel more confident about and in control of their personal data, including the right to:

– data portability, so that people can take their data from platform to platform;

– withdraw, remove, and erase basic personal data from a platform;

– know how personal data is being used, including knowing who has access to it, supported by a national advertising registry where companies would have to report with whom your data is being shared or sold, with the ability to withdraw consent at any time;

– review and challenge the amount of personal data that a company or government has collected;

– data security, compelling those who use personal data to take proactive steps to adequately protect it;

– be informed when personal data is breached, and to be compensated accordingly; and

– be free from discrimination online, including bias and harassment.

To better protect people’s personal data and to encourage greater competition in the digital marketplace, we will also move forward with new regulations for large digital companies, overseen by a newly-created Data Commissioner.

On the surface, a lot of this sounds quite promising. The right to be informed if your information has been breached or leaked is certainly an interesting prospect. Unfortunately, there is one very large problem with all of this: enforcement.

Earlier this year, this was brought into sharp focus with Facebook. In one breach incident, the privacy commissioners of BC and Canada found that Facebook is not being accountable and continues to break federal and BC laws. At the time, Facebook was facing a potential (later confirmed) $5 billion fine for privacy violations. Additionally, Facebook was also facing the prospect of massive fines under Europe’s brand new GDPR laws. That, in turn, had the potential to see Facebook fined whole percentages of their global revenue turnover.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, all the privacy commissioners could really do is wag their fingers and say, “don’t do that again!” So, Facebook seemingly adopted the approach of, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” Little surprise that strengthening Canada’s privacy laws quickly received broad party support given that Canada is pretty much falling behind in protecting civilian privacy.

So, a big thing that many believe is needed is a privacy commissioner that can have the power to levy fines against companies that violate privacy laws. It’s actually quite surprising that the platform missed this point entirely. Instead, the Liberals are promising to help Canadians be more informed about the state of their rights to privacy online. That is fine, now Canadians can find out more vividly how much large corporate interests can continue to flaunt the rules and not see any kind of punishment for violating the privacy rights of Canadians. It all borders on meaninglessness.

Even going back to the point of Canadians having a right to know if their information has been breached, what is stopping a company from saying, “we refuse to disclose that information”? In that situation, we are right back to square one of the privacy commissioner trying their luck to go to court and suing the company for what amounts to a rounding error on their balance sheets. A $100,000 fine would mean nothing to an organization like Facebook. Heck, they’ll probably dip into the funds of selling Canadians personal information to pay for the fines while continuing to just go about business as usual for all we know.

It would be easy to say that additional enforcement powers such as the power to levy fines would make for a more powerful privacy commissioner. Instead, the platform simply says that the privacy commissioner will be more powerful. Does that mean anything without the ability to levy fines like other jurisdictions in the rest of the world?

Online Harassment

We continued on and found something of interest on page 47-48 which reads as follows:

Online Hate Speech, Exploitation and Harassment Online

We will target online hate speech, exploitation and harassment, and do more to protect victims of hate speech.

Social media is a powerful tool – it connects us to our family and friends, lets us be a part of important social movements, and helps us learn about people whose different views can challenge or strengthen our own.

At the same time, it can also be used to threaten, intimidate, bully and harass people – or used to promote racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, misogynist, and homophobic views that target communities,
put people’s safety at risk, and undermine Canada’s long-standing commitment to diversity. We believe that when social media platforms are used to spread these harmful views, the platforms themselves must also be held accountable.

To help stop the proliferation of violent extremism online, we will move forward with new regulations for social media platforms, starting with a requirement that all platforms remove illegal content, including hate speech, within 24 hours or face significant financial penalties. This will also include other online harms, such as radicalization, incitement to violence, exploitation of children, or creation or distribution of terrorist propaganda.

Because hate speech continues to harm people offline as well, we will also look at options for civil
remedies for victims of hate speech.

Some might be looking at this and wonder where this sort of idea might have come from. We actually have a very probable answer to that: Europe. Back in April, Europe passed laws that required online platforms to remove terrorist content within 1 hour. The law had a lot of controversy when it was still being debated.

Essentially, speedy deletion is being asked without any real checks and balances. Essentially, with such a tight deadline, platforms might be compelled to simply remove content based on an accusation. That would give rise to fears about over-broad censorship that can easily be abused. Want to damage a political opponent? Issue a terrorism takedown demand. Within an hour, it’ll be gone, no questions asked.

So, such concepts do have the potential to run into free speech issues. What if an erroneous complaint is made? Is there a dispute system in place to have the content restored? How does one go about challenging such a complaint if they feel their content isn’t actually terrorism? How does one prove their content isn’t terrorism if their content is flagged?

Ultimately, this idea can very quickly go deep into some murky depths of uncertainty. The risk is that free speech will end up drowning in those depths in the process.

Arts and Culture

Probably one of the lengthier sections we found of interest is found on page 49. It reads as follows:

Culture

We will protect, promote, and strengthen the culture that brings people together and makes us strong.

In the last four years, we’ve made the biggest reinvestments in our cultural and creative industries in Canada’s history – investments that have helped stabilize CBC/Radio-Canada, given more direct support to artists, and created more good jobs for the talented people who tell our stories.

To ensure that more people have access to Canadian culture here and around the world, and to ensure that Canadian artists can continue to tell our stories, we will:

– introduce the Culture Pass, a $200 credit that every Canadian child will receive when they turn 12, to be used to access theatres, museums, galleries, workshops, and other cultural venues and local Canadian content;

– strengthen the regional mandate of CBC/Radio-Canada, so that local stations can broadcast more local news; and require CBC/Radio-Canada to open up its digital platform, so that journalism start-ups and community newspapers can access affordable technology to develop and distribute local content;

– continue to support Canadian film by increasing annual funding for Telefilm Canada by nearly 50 per cent a year;

– review our national museums policy to make sure that people can access Canadian history across the country, with better access to digital collections; and will move forward with making the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Heritage Centre into a national museum;

– introduce a new Cultural Diplomacy strategy, with at least one international mission each year to promote Canadian culture and creators around the world; and

– move forward, in our first year, with legislation that will take appropriate measures to ensure that all content providers – including internet giants – offer meaningful levels of Canadian content in their catalogues, contribute to the creation of Canadian content in both official languages, and promote this content and make it easily accessible on their platforms.

An interesting aspect is the idea of opening up the CBC for more independent journalism. Of course, the question is, what counts exactly? Would Freezenet count as a journalism start-up? Would there be certain editorial restrictions to use the platform? What about technological limitations? Can one have their own site and still use the services in question? It’s quite hard to really see if this is beneficial or not as we don’t really know much in the way of details. Ultimately, it raises more questions than it answers.

The last point, however, is an idea that experts resoundingly rejected. Back in February, Michael Geist offered his take on Cancon requirements of Internet giants:

Industry leaders promised that regulation will come, yet a closer examination of the arguments for Netflix taxes and Cancon requirements reveal that they are based on five deeply flawed premises.

Second, Cancon regulations are a poor proxy for Canada’s “authorial voice”. The not-so-secret reality of the Canadian system is that Canadian authors are often missing entirely from productions. Films and shows based on Canadian fiction do not count toward meeting the necessary points for Cancon accreditation and even Canadian screenplay writers are not a mandatory requirement.

Unlike many other countries, which adopt flexible standards to determine domestic content, Canada’s rigid approach means that generic police or courtroom dramas may qualify as Canadian content while the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale does not. Moreover, co-production agreements with dozens of countries ensure that many productions qualify for Canadian support despite limited Canadian participation.

Third, if the playing field lacks balance, it is the regulated sector – not Netflix – that is the prime beneficiary. The broadcasting and broadcast distribution sectors receive a wide range of regulatory benefits, making their mandated contributions effectively a quid pro quo for policies such as simultaneous substitution rules, which allow Canadian broadcasters to replace foreign signals and advertising with their own, and copyright retransmission rules, which allow for the retransmission of signals without infringing copyright.

Unlike Netflix, the regulated sector also benefits from must-carry regulations, which mandate the inclusion of many Canadian channels on basic cable and satellite packages; market protection, which has shielded Canadian broadcasters from foreign competition such as HBO or ESPN for decades; and eligibility for Canadian funding programs and tax credits, for which many foreign services are frequently ineligible.

Fourth, notwithstanding the oft-heard insistence that everyone must contribute the system – Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has declared “there is no free ride” –contributions to the system stem from an era of scarcity, in which broadcasting featured limited channels using public spectrum with licences granted to a handful of companies. It was that privileged access that led to contributions, not mere participation in the Canadian market.

That is why broadcasters must feature Canadian programming, but movie theatres do not. Or why broadcast distributors contribute a percentage of revenues to support Cancon, but book stores face no such requirement. Indeed, mandated contributions to an economic sector is the exception, not the rule: Canada does not require McDonald’s to contribute a portion of its revenues to support Canadian farmers or Nike to sell a certain percentage of Canadian-made shoes. In an era of abundance in which Internet streaming does not rely on scarce spectrum, the justification for a mandated contributions falls apart.

Fifth, Canadian content is already readily available and easily “discoverable” on the Netflix service. Alongside “official” Cancon, there are programs filmed in Canada, starring Canadian actors, or featuring Canadian stories. Some might argue that only official Cancon counts. Regardless of how it is measured, however, the reality is that Netflix already has a sizeable Canadian library, giving subscribers the option to watch hundreds of hours of Canadian content with little more than a simple search for “Canada.”

Cancon support remains an important ingredient in a vibrant Canadian cultural sector. Yet support such as grants, tax benefits, and other measures should come from general revenues as a matter of public policy, not through cross-subsidization models grounded in flawed arguments and inappropriate analogies.

So, it seems that the battle over Cancon requirements being mandated for online services is going to continue. The platform, at the very least, makes it clear that they will move forward with this push – whether it’s even needed or not.

Consumer Protections

We found an interesting tidbit on page page 53 which reads as follows:

More Protection for Consumers

We will make it easier for people to resolve complaints against powerful companies, and get the good service from government they deserve.

Too often, when people want to make a complaint under existing consumer protection laws, they come face-to-face with confusing and disjointed rules, making it difficult to resolve their problems.

To make it easier for people to register and resolve their complaints, we will move forward with a new
Canadian Consumer Advocate. The Advocate will serve as an independent, single point of contact for people who need help with banking, telecom, or transportation-related complaints, and will be empowered to review complaints and, if founded, impose appropriate penalties.

We will also move forward with ambitious new goals to make sure that people are more satisfied with the service they receive from government agencies and departments.

This is puzzling based on whether or not such an advocate would be equipped to handle such a broad range of complaints. This is inspired by what we saw in the US when the FCC voted to repeal network neutrality. Part of the repeal would mean complaints about network neutrality would no longer be handled by the FCC. Instead, it would be reverted to the FTC which the FTC itself said would be ill equipped to handle consumer complaints about network neutrality.

So, there are pretty reasonable and honest questions to raise here. If an advocate is set up, would they be able to handle consumer complaints about the fuel efficiency of their car, getting an accurate return on an investment in the stock market that the bank is involved in, and whether or not an ISP is delivering an Internet speed as promised when a consumer signs up for their service? Personally, just thinking about all those complexities alone is enough to make my head spin. Even just on questions of network neutrality, American’s feel the need to separate Internet consumer complaints with other consumer complaints given the complexities involved. So, how is it that Liberals feel that this can even be workable?

On the Weaponizing of Autonomous Vehicles

On page 72, we did catch a small snippet which reads as follows:

A Principled Approach to Foreign Policy

We will lead by example and help make the world a safe, just, prosperous, and sustainable place. For more than 150 years, Canada and Canadians have made their mark on the world – showing courage and honour in the face of war, working hard to build lasting peace and prosperity for millions of people, and leading the way in fighting climate change. That didn’t happen by accident, and it won’t continue without effort.

We will build on these accomplishments and continue to move forward with a principled approach that puts democracy, human rights, international law, and environmental protection at the heart of foreign policy. We will:

[…]

– take a leadership role in ensuring the ethical use of new technology, by developing and supporting international protocols to ban the development and use of fully autonomous weapons systems;

Essentially, the Liberals pretty much agreed with the Green Party on this issue. An interesting point to say the least.

Taxes for Tech Giants

There’s an interesting reference on page 79 which reads as follows:

To ensure that we continue to have the resources needed to invest in people and keep our economy strong and growing, we will move forward with a transparent and publicly reported review of several existing tax measures and will take action to make taxes more fair. This includes taking steps to crack down on corporate tax evasion and avoidance, and asking the wealthiest Canadians to pay a little bit more. We will:

[…]

– make sure that multinational tech giants pay corporate tax on the revenue they generate in Canada. We will also work to achieve the standard set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to ensure that international digital corporations whose products are consumed in Canada collect and remit the same level of sales taxation as Canadian digital corporations.

This seems to be a point that the Green Party made earlier on, though the Green Party platform was much more specific. An example of this is that the Green Party wanted to close tax loopholes for advertising. The Liberal’s platform seems to be much more vague here.

Beyond the Platform: History Shows a Mixed Bag

So, in addition to the platform, we also have some points of history we’d like to point out. This is, of course, not comprehensive, but feel that it adds clarity to the party position on some issues.

Choosing Forward With the War on Encryption

One of the most recent things that the Liberals did is actively contemplate a war on encryption. This is when they were in power just this last term. In August of this year, Public Safety Minister, Ralph Goodale, openly contemplated joining the war on encryption. That position, of course, was resoundingly rejected by advocacy organizations such as The Citizen Lab and a lawyer working for CIPPIC.

Patching a File-Sharing Legal Loophole, But Was it Effective?

Probably one of the few positive signs we’ve seen from this government is the fact that they did revise the rules surrounding file-sharing copyright demand notices. In those new laws, the government made it illegal to hijack Canada’s notice-and-notice system and demand payments. Of course, a problem with that is the fact that there are no penalties for sending illegal copyright demand notices. Later on, one Canadian law firm decided to, at least at one point, start sending possibly illegal demand notices anyway in spite of these laws. So, while the intention might have been a noble one, it’s unclear if that revision wound up fixing a major flaw in the system.

A Culture Ministry Open to Censoring the Internet

In May of this year, there was a second round of a major copyright debate. This time around, lobbyists are pushing for the power to censor the Internet based on mere claims of copyright infringement. While the Industry Minister is being level-headed with all of this, the Culture Ministry seems to be simply pushing the lobbyist’s agenda. So, at the very least, some portions of the Liberal party are open to Internet censorship. Definitely a big question mark for the Liberal party as to whether they are supportive of censorship or not.

A History of Pushing Warrantless Wiretapping and Mass Lawsuits Against File-Sharers

Another thing that could be a point of concern is that, back in the mid-2000’s, the Liberal Party had a history of pushing Lawful Access and Copyright reform bills that would effectively mirror the American “sue-em-all” litigation campaign. After years of pushback from Canadians, some members of the Liberal party have since come around to realize what the mass litigation campaign is really all about. Thus, there is some skepticism now. Additionally, the Liberal party has since grown weary of the idea of pushing for warrantless wiretapping (ala Lawful Access).

Still, from what we’ve seen in the past, we know that Liberals have pushed for such digital rights busting initiatives. The platform above is certainly an opportunity to clarify where the party stands now on those two issues. Unfortunately, nothing turned up. So, we see a pretty large question mark for the party on that front. It’s impossible to tell if they would, in fact, fall back on their old ways again at this stage.

What Else That’s Not Addressed

The biggest point we see not being addressed is the position on copyright. Would the Liberals like to keep the copyright term to the exceedingly long life plus 50 years or will they push to extend the term into the more extreme life plus 70 years?

Then, there is the question about Fair Dealing. Would the Liberal’s support the idea of expanding Fair Dealing to help the creative sector grow or would they simply listen to large corporate interests and further lock down content?

Another big issue that isn’t necessarily addressed is security concerns with smart devices. This issue was brought into sharp focus in July of this year when there was a proposal to turn an an entire area of Toronto into a Smart City. The proposal is hugely controversial given the privacy implications of having your every move followed likely for the purpose of advertising. All we really saw is a vague commitment to inform Canadians, but beyond that, something like this simply isn’t addressed.

One point the Green Party raised in their platform is concerns revolving around AI and the workplace. We didn’t see anything addressing the concerns about automation in any way, shape, or form. What we did see is bringing immigrants to fill positions, but nothing about automation.

One thing we see that is largely absent is issues surrounding free speech online. In some of our questions we raised, some of it asks whether or not free speech is protected, but nothing in the platform really addresses that.

Earlier this month, the issue surrounding loot boxes in video games became front and centre in the UK. There were significant questions raised about the prospect of selling such items to children. This is given that some people consider such aspects of games as gambling. There is nothing in the platform about that.

While issues being absent is usually bad news, we are happy to see one thing not addressed: censorship. We saw nothing about trying to compel ISPs to block certain forms of content. We saw policies asking platforms to do something about it, but not ISPs. This is actually good news because, for the time being, that debate is not being re-opened. In light of advances in encryption, such a debate typically winds up being counter-productive as long as a powerful voice is pushing for censorship. In short, it’s a can of worms you do not want to open. So, its absent from the platform is a positive thing.

Conclusions

Overall, the platform is largely facepalm worthy. You have a few commitments that are supposed to be fulfilled long after the next election. Other commitments are generally so vague, it’s difficult to really assess them in the first place. Some commitments look like they are poorly thought out (i.e. the public advocate idea). There are even a few ideas that experts have already rejected long ago.

So far, we’ve seen the platforms from the Green Party, People’s Party of Canada, Bloc, and the Liberal Party. At this point, the Green Party is still way ahead. Meanwhile, the Liberal Party seem to have a few vague musings about technology, but some of it is just copying NDP announcements while others seem to be poorly thought through. Of course, it could be worse given that the People’s Party of Canada only made mention of free speech while the Bloc had no policies at all. If I were a Liberal supporter, I would be sorely disappointed in this platform.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.



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