Numerically, Canada is currently a small player in the tech world: our GDP is only $1.3tn, and we lag behind the US and UK by more than a quarter in terms of financial tech startups. Our biggest asset, we think, might be the fact that we don’t try to be a top dog. There isn’t that kind of envy around here, instead there’s a sense that this is an industry that, compared to US models, is relatively modelled to Canadian strengths: pragmatism over drama. For a country known for our genteel colonial brand of bracing independence, Facebook is the one constant that’s kept us sane for 16 long years of succumbing to the gravitational pull of Silicon Valley.
The problem is, it’s gone too far. With a shrinking number of Canadian tech startups found today, and a growing number of companies pulled down by corruption scandals, the federal government now faces a situation where the social networking phenomenon has gone too far. Ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal engulfed Facebook (which, by the way, also revealed how the democratic process is pretty much run on steroids by the big tech companies and how the independent process of oversight has stalled).
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Censorship, fake news, and spreading propaganda have been problems since the start. In 2009, Sun News Network reported on the EU-Canada Free Trade Agreement’s requirement that Canadians accept that NATO was the “legal representative of the national government of the EU” (this was a near hysterical response from the Canadian right, how more kind hearts spread homophobia and racism at random and proportionally).
Then came the Globe and Mail’s fierce campaign against the first legislation seeking to regulate internet companies in Canada. Online activism also played a role in the demise of privacy legislation after Bill C-30. The upshot of this lengthy dismantling was the monumental failure to pass a law codifying that these laws were a legitimate and vital part of the political process. Ignorance about copyright law seems to be a prerequisite for winning a tech policy battle with an activist group.
The only innovation in this area, in terms of policy, has been a global sector council that was disbanded in 2016 after being widely derided for wanting “good-government and regulatory oversight” of the sector. Canada has been distracted since then with scandals about corruption from different parts of its economy. Now, with Facebook, we have our own version of the snarky remarks that have become associated with Europe in its efforts to prosecute the likes of tech giants.
We should act. The rumours that Ottawa is preparing to crack down on foreign political bots are not that far off the mark. In a smaller country like Canada, the reality of power lies in politics. The most successful tech players are all either homegrown or come from within the ranks of top tier venture capital firms. If we choose to join them in the battle for the future, we should act.
We are not alone in this. Facebook’s regulators around the world now accept that there needs to be a change in the way that they regulate platforms like Facebook. It’s becoming more common for regulators to take a systemic approach to the dominance of a particular sector.
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We have a chance to win this battle. Our government can follow the lead of the European commission and make sure that our regulation of platforms like Facebook mirrors the one used in Europe. Moreover, we are about to be the first country in the world to get rid of regulatory clarity in IT by unilaterally removing from the books existing data protection legislation.
Canada, the birthplace of free trade and the most generous healthcare system in the world, is about to experience the biggest overhaul of our technology policy since 1976. If we choose to follow the examples of the EU, it is possible that we can come to the table with increased humility, greater ambition, and better information on what we’re actually doing.
• Conor Ryan is co-founder of a social justice startup.