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Technology law column by Michael Geist

How Canada's Telecom Companies Have Secretly Supported Internet Surveillance Legislation

Canada's proposed Internet surveillance was back in the news last week after speculation grew that government intends to keep the bill in legislative limbo until it dies on the order paper. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews denied the reports, maintaining that Bill C-30 will still be sent to committee for further study.

Since its introduction in mid-February, the privacy and law enforcement communities have continued to express their views on the bill, but Canada's telecom service providers, which include the major telecom carriers and Internet service providers, have remained strangely silent. The silence is surprising given the enormous implications of the bill for the privacy of their customers and the possibility of millions of dollars in new surveillance equipment costs, active cooperation with law enforcement, and employee background checks.

While some attribute the Internet surveillance silence to an attempt to avoid picking sides in the high stakes privacy and security battle, documents obtained under the Access to Information Act offer a different, more troubling explanation. In the months leading up to the introduction Bill C-30, Canada's telecom companies worked actively with government officials to identify key issues and to develop a secret Industry - Government Collaborative Forum on Lawful Access.

The Future of Education Is Here, It's Just Not Evenly Distributed

William Gibson, the American-Canadian science fiction writer who coined the term cyberspace, is well-known for having stated "the future is already here - it’s just not evenly distributed." The quote succinctly points to the gradual dissemination of new technologies that start with first adopters but can take years to spread more widely.

To borrow from Gibson, in recent weeks it has become increasingly clear that the future of education is here, though it is not evenly distributed. The emerging model flips the current approach of expensive textbooks, closed research, and limited access to classroom-based learning on its head, instead featuring open course materials, open access to scholarly research, and Internet-based courses that can simultaneously accommodate thousands of students. The concern is that other countries are becoming first adopters, while Canada lags behind.

Isn't There a Better Way to Spend $750 Million?

As is the case with all mergers involving Canadian broadcast companies, the proposed Bell Media purchase of television and radio giant Astral immediately generated interest in the Canadian television production community, who anticipated yet another huge payday that follows from each of these deals. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which must approve the transaction, requires purchasers to "make clear and unequivocal commitments to provide tangible benefits representing 10 percent of the value of a transaction" (the percentage for television assets is typically 10 percent and 6 percent for radio assets).

Canada's Domain Name Agency to the Public: We Don’t Trust You

The Canadian Internet Registration Authority, the non-profit agency charged with managing the dot-ca domain name, has emerged in recent years as an important voice on Internet governance. Backed by a big bank account - CIRA earns millions of dollars each year for maintaining the domain name registry - it has launched an annual Internet governance forum attended by hundreds of Canadians, partnered with various groups to help small businesses establish an online presence, and sponsored many Canadian Internet-related events.

Yet just as CIRA begins to fulfill its potential as an "important public resource" (as described in its mandate letter from the Government of Canada), it has proposed a new governance structure that seeks to sideline the public by limiting the ability to serve on the CIRA board. With more than a million registrants, CIRA is one of Canada’s largest Internet organizations and its message to members is clear: we don’t trust you.

Other People’s Money: Why AUCC Signed the Most Expensive Copyright Insurance Policy in Cdn History

Car rental companies are infamous for encouraging customers to sign up for expensive liability insurance policies. Since many renters already have coverage from their own automotive insurance policies or can rely upon insurance coverage provided by their credit card issuer, the decision whether to sign up for a costly additional policy frequently depends upon who is paying the bill. If the individual is on the hook, they will often decline coverage and rely on their existing policies. If someone else is paying, it becomes easier to justify signing up for the additional coverage.

Last week, the Association of Universities and Colleges Canada, which represents dozens of Canada's leading universities, signed up for one of the most expensive copyright insurance policies in Canadian history. The policy comes in the form of a controversial model copyright licensing agreement with Access Copyright, a copyright collective that licenses copying and distribution of copyrighted works such as books, journals, and other texts. Should AUCC members sign the agreement - it falls to each individual university to decide whether to do so - they will pay $26 per full time student per year for the right to copy works from the Access Copyright repertoire.

Cutting Community Internet Access Program Highlights Absence of Digital Strategy

The recent federal budget was a hefty 498 pages, but it still omitted disclosing the decision to eliminate funding for the Community Access Program, Canada's longstanding initiative to provide an Internet access alternative for those without connectivity. The world has changed dramatically since the CAP was first launched in 1995, but the decision to cut it without establishing alternative solutions for low-income Canadians who are not online is a disappointing development that highlights yet again the absence of a national digital strategy from Industry Minister Christian Paradis.

The CAP was once a foundational element in the federal government's effort to connect Canadians. In the late 1990s, many did not have Internet access at home and wireless data plans were still years away. Today, the majority of Canadians have residential broadband access as well as wireless connectivity through their smartphones or other devices.

Should Canadians have to pay for TV channels they don’t want?

Consumers have become accustomed to lots of choice for entertainment and information services. Music and movie services offer single downloads and a range of subscription models, while newspapers and magazines sell their content as individual issues or subscriptions on multiple platforms.

Yet Canadian cable and satellite providers remain a stubborn holdout. The broadcast community has long resisted a market-oriented approach that would allow consumers to exercise real choice in their cable and satellite packages, instead demanding a corporate welfare regulatory framework that guarantees big profits and mediocre programming. That could have changed had the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission pushed back against Bell Media in a major case involving the terms of broadcast distribution, but a ruling late last week indicated that it remains reluctant to do so.

The case pits Canada’s largest broadcaster and a major broadcast distributor against a group of cable and telecom providers including Telus, Cogeco, MTS Allstream, and Eastlink. The common link among this group is that unlike Bell, Rogers, and Shaw, who act as both broadcasters and broadcast distributors, these companies function as independents by only offering broadcast distribution through either cable or IPTV services.

The Results are In: Online Voting Still Too Risky

The recent New Democratic Party convention in Toronto may have done more than just select Thomas Mulcair as the party's new leader. It may have also buried the prospect of online voting in Canada for the foreseeable future. While Internet-based voting supporters have consistently maintained that the technology is safe and secure, the NDP's experience - in which a denial of service attack resulted in long delays and inaccessible websites - demonstrates that turning to Internet voting in an election involving millions of voters would be irresponsible and risky.

As voter turnout has steadily declined in recent years, Elections Canada has focused on increasing participation by studying Internet-based voting alternatives. The appeal of online voting is obvious. Canadians bank online, take education courses online, watch movies online, share their life experiences through social networks online, and access government information and services online. Given the integral role the Internet plays in our daily lives, why not vote online as well?

Reading the Tech Tea Leaves in the Fine Print of the Budget

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will unveil the government’s much-anticipated budget this week amidst widespread speculation that it will feature sizable spending cuts and significant reorganization of major government programs. While changes to old age pension eligibility, the CBC, as well as government departments and programs will attract the lion share of attention, the budget choices could have major implications for technology policy.

The government has telegraphed some measures, including an initiative to recast the National Research Council into a service focused on providing assistance to business rather than an entity emphasizing basic research. Changes to the NRC may be just the starting point as the budget’s fine print could include some important clues about where the government is headed on the digital economy.

One significant spending decision involves the renewal of CANARIE, Canada's research and education high-speed network (I am a volunteer CANARIE board member). For years, CANARIE has been responsible for cutting-edge Canadian networking programs such as ensuring Internet connectivity for every school from coast to coast to coast.

Ottawa Picks Bland Over Bold on Telecom Policy

After months of delay, Industry Minister Christian Paradis unveiled the government's telecom strategy last week, setting out the details of the forthcoming spectrum auction and tinkering with longstanding foreign ownership restrictions.

Spectrum allocation and auctions, which focus on the availability of frequencies used to provide wireless services, involves fairly technical questions that few outside the industry follow closely. Yet the impact of spectrum policy has far reaching effects on consumers, since the right policies can foster greater competition, better services, and lower prices.

While the headlines have focused on changes to the foreign ownership rules, the government’s policy choices are rather timid. Its strategy to facilitate greater telecom competition focuses on two key issues. First, it opts for a spectrum cap that will limit the amount of the best “beachfront” spectrum any single company may hold. When combined with a use-it-or-lost-it requirement that should guard against carriers hoarding spectrum without using it, the policy is designed to ensure that every market in Canada has at least one major wireless carrier not named Bell, Telus, or Rogers.

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