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Digital Issues Deserve a Spot in Election Campaign

With a federal election now set for October 14th, the coming weeks will be dominated by political debate as each party seeks to make their case to voters across the country. The election mode marks an important role reversal - after months of Canadians working to gain the attention of their elected officials, those same politicians will be knocking on doors, making phone calls, and participating in all-candidates meetings in an effort to seek them out.

The 2008 election therefore presents an exceptional opportunity to raise the profile of digital issues.  Not only do these policies touch on so-called core concerns such as the economy, the environment, education, and health care, but they also resonate with younger Canadians, who could help swing the balance of power in many ridings.

In the United States election, both Barack Obama and John McCain have unveiled detailed digital policy positions.  Canadian leaders have yet to promote their policies, but there are at least five worth watching and asking about.

1.    Spectrum surplus - The recent wireless spectrum auction generated over $4 billion for the federal government, nearly triple initial estimates.  The Conservatives committed in the 2008 budget to allocate the funds to debt reduction. The Liberals, meanwhile, focused on the opportunity to use the surplus revenues to kick-start long delayed plans to provide high-speed Internet access to all Canadians.  Where do the parties stand on the use of the spectrum proceeds and on universal broadband access from coast to coast to coast?

2.    Wireless competition - The sorry state of the Canadian wireless marketplace has been well documented in recent months with high profile incidents involving text message charges and high data pricing.  New competitors are slated to debut in late 2009, yet Canadians continue to face high prices and limited choice.  Are the political parties content with the status quo?  If not, would they consider additional measures such as the removal of foreign ownership restrictions or new openness requirements in the next spectrum auction?

3.    Net neutrality - Network neutrality emerged as a major issue this year with a political rally on Parliament Hill, the introduction of a Private Member's bill, and a heated regulatory battle between Bell and independent Internet service providers at the CRTC.  The same is true in the U.S., where the Federal Communications Commission (the CRTC's counterpart) ordered cable giant Comcast to abide by net neutrality principles.  Where do Canada's political parties stand on net neutrality?  If the CRTC concludes that it does not possess the regulatory power to address the issue, would they be prepared to introduce legislative reforms?

4.    Copyright - Few issues generated as much attention this summer as copyright with some Members of Parliament acknowledging that the controversial Bill C-61 was one of the most discussed constituent concerns.  With the bill now dead, each party should be asked to articulate its plan for the future.  Would the Conservatives reintroduce the bill unchanged?  Would the Liberals scrap the bill and hold public consultations as several of their MPs have suggested?  Would the NDP continue its strong opposition to the C-61 approach?

5.    Privacy reform - Over the past year, the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics held hearings on potential reforms to both PIPEDA (the private sector privacy law) and the Privacy Act (the public sector privacy law).  These reform initiatives - including a recommendation to implement long-awaited mandatory security breach disclosure legislation - have now stalled with the election call.  None of the political parties have staked out a clear position on privacy legislation. This election campaign provides an opportunity to put the issue, along with other digital concerns, squarely on the policy agenda.

 
 
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at www.michaelgeist.ca. 
 
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