Navdeep Bains wanted to make Canada an innovation leader of the world. After his departure, there is questions on whether he succeeded.
For nearly two decades, Canadian politics felt, more often then not, a battle between innovation and the government. Innovators and technology enthusiasts are wanting to create new business models and explore new technology to make Canada an innovative hub. Meanwhile, on the other side, the government lobbied heavily by legacy corporations such as the music industry and other kinds of foreign influence, kept trying to table legislation that would hamstring said innovation and basic human rights. This is often through legislation such as warrantless wiretapping and copyright reform bills often referred to as “the Canadian DMCA“.
Mercifully, the attitude that anything tech being a threat to Canada has gradually been changing over the years. With the rise in small businesses revolving around technology and more and more people benefiting from technology, the hard line against anything innovation has softened in recent years. People who believe in free speech and that technology isn’t this overarching threat to society finally started getting a seat at the table.
One sign of this warming attitude towards the Internet is through Canadian Innovation Minister, Navdeep Bains. His push to make Canada an innovation leader of the world became welcome news for the technology sector. Bains supported the concept of network neutrality even as the United States threw the entire Internet under the bus and killed network neutrality. The fact that Canada didn’t blindly follow the United States in this manner sent a signal that as America was closing the door for innovators, Canada was keeping their doors open.
Yet, those “sunny ways” started seeing clouds. By 2019, the Liberal government started calling for, among other things, laws that mandate websites carry a certain percentage of Canadian content. Ideas like that basically ignores the fact that the Internet is a global phenomenon. Instead, such a call pretends that the Internet is no different than a standard television channel. Fundamentally, this is extremely problematic. At best, every website that wishes to operate in Canada now must have a Canadian version that abides by that percentage of content. Even under this best case scenario, you can already hear business footsteps heading for the exits.
Even by then, questions were being raised over where Bains is in all of this. If Bains was hoping to make Canada an innovation leader, then these proposals would be a threat to the cause. Yet, Bains remained silent. Unfortunately, those clouds continued to gather and grow thicker.
In 2020, the Canadian Heritage Minister, a ministry that has a long history of being anti-technology, started to chime in. Steven Guilbeault began calling for the suicidal link tax law. That law demands that if a someone links to something like a news article, then that website must pay a tax for the privilege. In any research field, such a requirement is pretty much unprecedented. No one is paying a tax to reference a scholarly paper in an essay. Yet, somehow, the Internet magically must be treated differently and have this unprecedented law applied. Unsurprisingly, the big publishing corporations have been fiercely lobbying for this in a seeming bid to prop up their inability to adjust to modern times.
Even as those calls grew stronger to basically launch an assault on innovation, Bains continued to remain silent for the most part. This represented a very worrying trend that the Canadian government is increasingly looking towards taking the political landscape to the bad old days where the government simply considered things like innovation and the Internet as a threat that must be neutralized.
Now, we are learning about an even more troubling sign. It seems that Bains is departing from his cabinet position. Apparently, he is retiring. From The Toronto Star:
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “trepidatious” when his industry minister and trusted political lieutenant Navdeep Bains asked him to take a walk in the snow around the grounds of Rideau Hall Monday last week.
“I think we all know what that means in politics,” quipped Trudeau, who was 13 — the same age as Bains’ eldest daughter — when his father Pierre Trudeau took his own wintry walk in 1984 and decided to leave office.
It gave rise to a political meme before there was such a word — one that can mean a politician has outlasted their welcome.
But Bains’ decision not to run in the next election, whenever it comes, was unexpected and disruptive.
It triggered a surprise cabinet shuffle Tuesday morning amid a growing second wave of the pandemic as the federal Liberals scramble to secure more early vaccine doses, not knowing when it will even schedule the next federal budget.
At a cabinet retreat that began Tuesday afternoon, the challenges of setting an agenda for the months ahead were front and centre.
With that cabinet shuffle, François-Philippe Champagne replaces Bains for the Innovation minister position. From Mobile Syrup:
Former Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne has been sworn in as the new Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry.
Champagne was sworn in on January 12th virtually amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The appointment follows Navdeep Bains’ decision to not run in the next federal election and to leave cabinet to spend more time with his family.
In a statement, the Office of the Prime Minister said that “in his new role, Minister Champagne will rely on his extensive business experience in the fields of energy, engineering, and innovation to assist our economic recovery from the global COVID-19 pandemic, create new jobs for Canadians and grow our middle class.”
The release notes that Champagne “deeply understands the needs and priorities of Canadians living in rural communities, including the importance of improving high-speed internet access that will empower communities across the country.”
That basically highlights a campaign promise by multiple parties during the last election. Last week, Champagne issued a letter highlighting the priorities he sees as part of his new role. Large portions were devoted to the fight against COVID-19 and pushing for cleaner technology. After a good deal of text, we see this as part of his priorities.
- Recognizing that all Canadians need the tools to fully participate in and benefit from the digital economy, support the Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development on the continued implementation of the Universal Broadband Fund to ensure that all Canadians, no matter where they live, have access to high-speed internet. Your work should include considerations around the effective use and deployment of innovative technologies, such as low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites, to connect all Canadians.
- Support the Minister of Canadian Heritage to ensure that the revenues of web giants are shared more fairly with our creators and media, and require them to contribute to the creation, production and distribution of our stories on screen, in lyrics, in music and in writing.
That letter is apparently a followup to another letter last year which contains the following:
I will expect you to work with your colleagues and through established legislative, regulatory and Cabinet processes to deliver on your top priorities. In particular, you will:
- Work with the Minister of Canadian Heritage to introduce legislation by the end of 2020 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, promote this content and make it easily accessible on their platforms. The legislation should also consider additional cultural and linguistic communities.
These signals represent a very worrying trend for digital rights. It suggests that the minister will simply surrender innovation in favor of pet projects pushed by legacy corporations such as the aforementioned link tax.
While the copyright front is starting to look dismal, the news isn’t all bad. In that same 2019 letter, we also did see the following:
Work with the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and the Minister of Canadian Heritage to advance Canada’s Digital Charter and enhanced powers for the Privacy Commissioner, in order to establish a new set of online rights, including: data portability; the ability to withdraw, remove and erase basic personal data from a platform; the knowledge of how personal data is being used, including with a national advertising registry and the ability to withdraw consent for the sharing or sale of data; the ability to review and challenge the amount of personal data that a company or government has collected; proactive data security requirements; the ability to be informed when personal data is breached with appropriate compensation; and the ability to be free from online discrimination including bias and harassment. With the support of the Minister of Canadian Heritage, create new regulations for large digital companies to better protect people’s personal data and encourage greater competition in the digital marketplace. A newly created Data Commissioner will oversee those regulations. With the support of the Minister of Digital Government, continue work on the ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government.
At the very least, this represents a positive move towards better protecting personal information. In the wake of so many leaks and breaches (such as Lifelabs and the Desjardin breach that successfully got more than 100% of their customers compromised as mathematically improbably as that is), it’s promising to see someone so high up in the government ranks actually take these issues seriously.
Indeed, with Facebook basically saying “bite me” in the wake of the data mining scandal of 2018, it’s reassuring that there will be a continued push to update Canadian privacy laws that says that if a company is negligent in handling personal information, they can expect to receive more than a strongly worded letter from a privacy commissioner in Canada.
So, this is definitely great news for privacy advocates. Unfortunately, for innovators in the online world, the signals affecting them are definitely not good. Already, the situation is that Champagne is suggesting that he will simply cave to the Heritage Minister and ratchet up copyright laws and crack down on the Internet. Here’s hoping that such a thing doesn’t actually come to fruition, but we’re not exactly off to a great start here – even if there is positive news for those who are privacy minded.