Mediacheck

Parties Take Note: Digital Policy Is a Provincial Issue

Yet so far digital issues are largely missing from Ontario's election campaign.

By Michael Geist 13 Sep 2011 | TheTyee.ca

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 mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.

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Vote getter? Constitution leaves many key digital policies to the provinces.

The Ontario election campaign kicked off last week with the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives, and NDP promoting their policy platforms and quickly jumping into debates on the economy, health care and education. While the dominance of those three issues is unsurprising, those Ontarians hoping for some discussion of digital policy were bound to be a bit disappointed.

The Liberal platform references the importance of jobs in the technology and media sectors, but offers little else on the digital economy. The Progressive Conservatives are the only party to make a commitment to open government -- their platform follows developments in many other jurisdictions that pledge to make government data more readily available for public use -- but other digital issues are ignored. The NDP makes no reference to digital policies at all.

The federal government tends to lead on digital policies, though its much-anticipated digital economy strategy is months overdue. Yet for constitutional reasons that grant the provinces jurisdiction over property and civil rights, many important issues fall to the provinces.

For example, the federal government addresses most telecom issues including carrier regulation and spectrum allocation but many consumer protection concerns associated with wireless carriers falls to the provinces. In recent months, both Quebec and Manitoba have moved forward with legislation to create consumer protections on cellphone contracts and locked devices.

Similar concerns have been raised in Ontario. Last year, Ontario MPP David Orazietti introduced a private members bill that would have established a requirement to unlock devices if the consumer pays full price or once the contract expires. Moreover, the bill identified a long list of disclosure requirements including the costs associated with service plans, advertisements, roaming charges, or when consumers are nearing their monthly cap. The bill also established the right to cancel a service contract with 30 days notice with a maximum liability of one-month service fee. Despite clear public interest in the issue, the platforms of all three provincial parties are silent on the issue.

Copyright is also a federal matter, but if the government moves forward with the digital lock rules discussed in the recently uncovered Wikileaks cables, the provincial governments should consider the significant consumer protection issues that are likely to follow.

Steep learning curve for citizens

Most consumers know little if anything about digital locks and the limitations that may be placed on consumer entertainment products such as CDs, DVDs, video games, or ebooks. For many consumers, these digitally locked products are simply not fit for purpose -- they may not play on their DVD player or permit usage that most would expect is permissible. Moreover, consumers frequently can't obtain a refund for their purchases as many retailers won't accept returns on opened CDs and DVDs and digital download services do not offer refunds to disgruntled downloaders. Other countries have established specific consumer protections on digital lock use and it falls to the Canadian provinces to do the same.

With privacy reform stalled at the federal level, there is an important role to play for provincial governments, yet the issue is not discussed by any of the three provincial parties. Several Canadian provinces including Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec have enacted broad-based privacy legislation. Ontario has not, raising the question of where the parties stand on developing provincial privacy protections that raise the bar by establishing tough penalties for violations and mandatory disclosures of privacy breaches.

Internet access is yet another issue where a provincial voice is needed. As the federal government dithers, it may fall to the provinces to establish universal broadband initiatives. Where do the three parties stand on broadband access, community wifi networks, or support for computer ownership for those who find it unaffordable?

Like most other digital policy issues in this campaign, seemingly none of the parties have much to say.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Science + Tech

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