After releasing a lacklustre budget earlier this week, especially when it comes to technology issues, it looks like Canada is heading for a federal election. A non-confidence motion is expected to be called by the end of the week, which means it’s just about campaign time.
It’s probably a good time to assess how the current Conservative government has done since coming into its minority power position in 2006. Regular political pundits will grade on other, bigger aspects so I’ll focus my assessment solely on science, technology and telecommunications – areas in which, it’s fair to say, the government has been pretty dismal. Just to preface – I’ve voted for candidates of all three major parties in previous elections so I’m not a Conservative basher by trade. That said, it’s hard to look over the government’s record over the past four years and come to a rosy conclusion.
Let’s break down things down to the six key tech and telecom issues of the past five years: wireless, internet, deregulation, foreign ownership, copyright and science.
Wireless: We’ll start with the lone bright spot. Despite heavy lobbying from the big three wireless providers (Bell, Rogers and Telus) in 2005 to the contrary, then industry minister Jim Prentice did the right thing by opening up the upcoming spectrum auction to new players. The government wisely chose to reserve a big chunk of airwaves for new companies looking to come in to compete with the big three and bring down some of the highest wireless prices in the developed world. The move, which many deemed “populist” (there’s that dirty word again), has paid dividends in the form of new carriers such as Wind, Mobilicity, Public Mobile and Videotron, almost all of which have been offering great deals for the past year. The big guys have, in turn, been forced to sharpen their pencils and come down in price too. There is still much to do – Canada still has the longest wireless contracts in the world and consumers are still being victimized – and the fate of the newcomers is also uncertain, but things are clearly better now than they were five years ago. The government does lose points in this area, however, because of the foolish way it dealt with the CRTC’s blocking of Wind Mobile’s startup. Rather than do the proper thing and change the laws – which we’ll get to below – current Industry Minister Tony Clement chose to play fast and loose and simply overrule the regulator on whether Wind is properly Canadian-controlled or not. The courts have since backed up the CRTC and Wind’s future is now in peril. Canada’s wireless situation is thus better, but really muddy. Grade: B-
Internet: Clement and the rest of the boys will head into the election looking sort of like consumer champions thanks to their recent stand against usage-based internet billing, but their positioning is something of a sham. The outrage over UBB wasn’t due to a dispute over wholesale pricing that affects a relatively small number of people, it stemmed from how Canadians are sick and tired of being gouged by big telecom providers. While Clement talked tough on Twitter about UBB, his sole action was to tell the CRTC to reconsider its decision on the issue. But let’s not forget that the same day he overturned the regulator on Wind back in 2009, he also ordered a review of its so-called speed-matching decision, which would have given those same wholesale internet providers the ability to sell faster services that are on par to Bell and the big boys. The CRTC did go back to the drawing board and ultimately came back with pretty much the same decision. So while Clement framed himself as a good guy in UBB, he was most certainly open to big telco lobbying in other, more important ways. But that’s only the tip of the much larger iceberg, which is a complete lack of vision or leadership on internet issues. All other parties have voiced support for net neutrality, but the Conservatives have been silent. And while other countries’ governments have moved forward with bold broadband plans designed to boost internet usage among citizens or to enshrine it as a legal right, the Conservatives have tossed a few token dollars at expanding rural broadband and repeatedly promised that a “digital strategy” is eventually coming. How bad have the Conservatives been on this front? Well, the man who technically holds power over them – former University of Waterloo president and current Governor General David Johnston – said last year before he took office that there’s a clear “failure of imagination” on the issue. Indeed, the educator has spoken. Grade: F
Deregulation: When the newly elected government in 2006 issued its famous policy direction to the CRTC, it laid the groundwork for much of the discontent there is now. The policy direction told the regulator to lay off, to deregulate where possible and to let market forces do their thing. Then industry minister Maxime Bernier also led the charge for the creation of the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services, an organization that not only has a name that simply rolls off the tongue, but one that is also supposed to be a clearing house for consumer complaints. Bernier correctly surmised that in a deregulated market, there would need to be some sort of body to look out for the rights of the consumer. The only problem is, the resultant CCTS came into being as some sort of weird mutant child that nobody really wanted. It’s an industry-run and -funded body, yet it’s overseen by the CRTC. Many of the telecom companies resented being dragged into belonging to and paying for the CCTS while CRTC staff probably aren’t pleased that they have to do the work of looking after it without having any direct authority over the complaints. The worst part is, the average Canadian still doesn’t know the CCTS exists. Despite many promises of an awareness campaign, we have yet to see the organization mentioned anywhere other than in stories by journalists who have purposely gone looking for it. I remember Bernier passionately defending his policy direction and swearing that deregulation would lead to more competition and lower prices. Raise your hand if your television, internet or home phone bill has gone done in the past four years. Crickets? Exactly. Oh, and one last point – the Minister of Industry (whoever wears the hat on a given day) is also supposed to be the Minister of Consumer Affairs. It was the previous Liberal government that actually merged the two offices, but the point stands: how does this figure? Grade: D
Foreign ownership: Here’s an issue that’s tied closely – even intimately – to deregulation. Limits on foreign ownership of infrastructure-based telecom companies in Canada are essentially the last and most important regulation. The restrictions essentially keep foreign entities from any meaningful ownership of such companies in Canada, which has resulted in one of two things: either the foreigners stay away, or they get into messed up situations like what Wind is currently in. There’s no two ways about it – in an age where telecommunications, an expensive business to get into, is global, Canada is ass-backwards with its protectionist laws. Numerous government panels from both sides of the House have urged removing these restrictions and the Conservatives even held hearings into the matter last year. But when it came down to pulling the trigger and finally moving ahead with it, they chickened out and tabled it, possibly to next year. While letting foreigners in won’t solve all the problems, keeping them out has combined with the deregulation above to create a really perverse situation. The government has effectively let the wolves run the henhouse – but they’ve also kept the locks on the doors to prevent anyone from getting in or out. It’s no wonder the chickens are screaming. Grade: F
Copyright: And you thought usage-based billing fired up Canadians? In my time at the CBC, there was no other tech issue that really irked people like copyright reform did. That’s probably because it really affects every single person, often in very personal ways. Any government wading into this topic must therefore tread lightly. The Conservatives sure didn’t. When Jim Prentice first proposed Bill C-61 in 2008, he was nearly stoned to death by the masses. The chief complaint was a clause that would have made it illegal to pick digital locks placed on devices and content. A record company could have therefore made it illegal to copy one of their CDs to an iPod, or a television broadcaster could have prevented the recording of shows onto PVRs. Prentice ended up retreating and was soon shuffled off into a different portfolio. His successors on copyright, Clement and Heritage Minister James Moore, tried to tread a little softer and held country-wide consultations on what should be in the new legislation. But, after hearing to the contrary from thousands of Canadians, their Bill C-32 contained some of the same provisions as Prentice’s doomed attempt, including the anti-lock-picking measure, which naturally sparked much of the same anger. Clement and Moore then proceeded to play good-cop, bad-cop, with Moore towing the line that strong rules are necessary to guarantee incomes for content creators and Clement promising further discussion. The bill has since been stuck in debate at the parliamentary committee level, where it has been progressing at a snail’s pace. With an election coming, it sure looks like this will be just another attempt at reforming copyright that will go nowhere. The Conservatives can’t take full blame for it, as some insiders actually blame the other parties for the committee’s slowness. Still, the government should have shown better sensitivity to what Canadians want in such laws in the first place, which would have made it far more likely that this particular piece of work would have been done and done long ago. Grade: C-
Science: Every government throws some token dollars to science and research, so budgets are not a good way to gauge an official attitude, not that the Conservatives have been particularly good in this regard anyway. A government’s day-to-day actions are a better way to measure, and in this aspect the Conservatives have fared terribly. As uncovered and documented in the periodical Nature, the government last year enacted a policy that required all federally funded scientists to clear media interviews with their respective minister’s office. Scientists and journalists said this was originally tied back to some climate change reports that did not fit in with the government’s ideology. The policy, which effectively muzzled scientists, was something straight out of a Dystopian melodrama , a George W. Bush-like situation that most Canadians agree simply should not happen here in Canada. Moreover, that’s just not the way science is supposed to work. Scientists are supposed to publicize their research, both to encourage other scientists to try and disprove it, and to get the public excited and motivated behind it. Muzzling scientists is about as backwards, anti-innovation and plain stupid as you can get. Grade: F-
There’s still the possibility the Conservatives will introduce their long-promised digital economy strategy as part of an election platform, but that seems like a cynical move now. If the government really cared about developing Canada’s innovation capability, it would have launched this plan a long time ago rather than springing it simply as an election ploy. As such, it’s pretty clear this is a government that would rather concern itself with what Canadians can pull out of the ground rather than from out of their heads.