Mediacheck

Canada Needs a Digital Hero

The feds have finally made the digital economy a priority, but we need real leadership to overcome a decade of policy neglect.

By Michael Geist 18 May 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Michael Geist, whose column on digital policy and law runs every Tuesday on The Tyee, holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.

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Last week Industry Minister Tony Clement unveiled the government's much-anticipated Digital Economy Strategy consultation. The consultation is slated to run for two months and includes an online forum, face-to-face meetings, and a 40-page document that sets out key areas of concern. Five areas for discussion are identified: capacity to innovate, building a world-class digital infrastructure, growing the ICT industry, creating digital content, and building digital skills.

Skeptics will argue that the consultation is long overdue or perhaps even comes too late. Canada has inarguably lost considerable ground in comparison with many other countries around the world that were quicker to identify and implement digital strategies.

No time to stay silent

While the delays have been marked by a gradual hollowing-out of the Canadian tech sector and sliding global rankings on network and wireless connectivity, Clement has firmly established himself as the most committed industry minister on digital issues since John Manley in the late 1990s.

Prioritizing digital issues is a first step toward remedying the situation, but a decade worth of policy neglect will not be solved overnight. Despite lingering doubts about whether the government is listening -- many Canadians fear that last summer's copyright consultation may be largely ignored -- those concerned with Canada's digital future can ill-afford to stay silent on the sidelines.

I hope to address some of the substantive questions raised by the consultation in a future column, but the more immediate concern are two unasked questions that cut across all issues -- who will lead the strategy and how will the government pay for it.

Is Clement up for the task?

Clement is the obvious point person for digital strategy leadership, yet the consultation document demonstrates that the issue is not so clear cut. Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore and Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Diane Finley both contributed to the document, leading to different points of emphasis among the chapters. Moreover, many other ministers -- including public safety, health, the environment, trade, and finance -- could reasonably argue for a role in the process.

Given the broad scope of digital issues, Canada needs a single point of leadership with the ability to advance the strategy at the cabinet table and to cut across sectors. Many of our trading partners have created ministerial positions (or at least junior ministers) with responsibility for specific digital issues. For example, Australia has both a minister for innovation, industry, science and research and a minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy.

If Clement is to lead, he needs clear responsibility and a mandate on the issue, not the prospect of cobbling together support from cabinet colleagues zealously guarding their turf after Canadians have spoken.

Invest now, collect later

Even with leadership addressed, a successful national digital strategy requires funding. The question of how the strategy will be paid for is omitted from the consultation but represents a basic pre-requisite. While not all aspects of the strategy will require significant investments -- many policy solutions involve minimal government expenditures -- developing digital skills training programs, ensuring broadband access for all Canadian communities, and fostering the creation and promotion of Canadian new media are just some of the objectives that come with a price tag attached.

The most obvious source of funds comes from the consultation itself. The digital television transition, which seems to have stalled in recent months but is still nominally set for August 2011, should lead to spectrum re-allocation and auction. The transition holds the dual promise of injecting new competition into the wireless sector and filling government coffers with billions in new revenue. Those billions should be earmarked for the digital economy strategy, effectively enabling the strategy to pay for itself.  [Tyee]

Read more: Science + Tech

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