Chairman's Desk

Trudeau trying to navigate uncharted digital waters

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on May 26, 2019.


This week, as more than 25,000 tech execs and entrepreneurs from around the globe descended on Toronto for the Collision Conference, the parallels between Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party of Canada and the companies that define Silicon Valley, and (increasingly) Toronto and Montreal were striking.

Both are largely founder-driven.

Both are searching for organic growth, and looking to broaden their total available market — of users in the first instance and voters in the second.

And, both, have lost some of their lustre in recent years with heightened public scrutiny resulting from issues of ethics and values.

So, as panellists discussed topics like, “Move Slow and Fix Things: Can big tech bring back the shine to their fallen star?” and “From Darlings to Damaged: Managing tech’s reputation in an age of heightened scrutiny,” it was perhaps no surprise to see Trudeau and his Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains announce a digital charter: Ten principles designed not only to underpin all future legislation but to guide reforms to the existing patchwork of laws that govern our digital lives as well.

Bains and Trudeau say the rationale behind the charter is a desire to restore trust in our institutions and technology, giving Canadians confidence that their privacy is protected while also bolstering a nascent domestic tech industry.

The reality is that it will be impossible to pass meaningful legislation before the House rises in a couple of weeks.

Not that it bothers Team Trudeau. More than a real plan for regulation, the document is a statement of principles, a glimpse of a future Liberal campaign plank.

It is not hard to imagine Trudeau campaigning on this issue — he is young enough to be conversant in online issues. Remember the praise and adulation in 2016, when he stood in front of a chalkboard covered in math equations and handily explained quantum computing to an adoring media?

But he is not alone. His NDP counterpart Jagmeet Singh, who is himself a savvy user of Snapchat, could out flank him by calling for the immediate regulation of tech giants, like Facebook or Amazon.

Across the Western world, leftist political parties are following the lead of the Europeans in regulating tech companies, riding a public “techlash” driven by scandals such as Cambridge Analytica and an endless parade of hacks and data breaches.

In the United States, Democrats jostling for the 2020 presidential nomination are racing to out-do each other in their plans to trust-bust Facebook, the same way Teddy Roosevelt did Standard Oil or Clinton did Microsoft.

There is an audience for all of this because the public believes when it comes to privacy-protecting regulations, government is chronically running three steps behind the biggest, most advanced tech companies.

Consequently, governments now face the same challenge they did in regulating Bay Street. Those who really have the know-how and technical understanding to draft regulations find it much more enticing to work for industry than for government.

In his speech announcing the digital charter, Trudeau referred to the digital sphere as a “Wild West,” a fitting descriptor both because it can be a dangerous place — Trudeau’s remarks were delivered at a conference devoted to combating hate speech online — but also because there exists enormous financial opportunity.

The challenge with the digital charter is thus to strike the right balance between preserving the nascent but lucrative technology ecosystem (a $100 billion industry in Canada) and addressing the public’s sudden concerns.

To do so, the charter includes a number of principles about consumer protections. In addition to obvious privacy and safety rights, users should have control over what data to share, and the ability to transfer it from one company to another without “undue burden.”

This last idea, known as “data portability,” will be a boon to both users, and to startups, by making it easier to transfer personal information away from legacy companies.

The fact of the matter is most companies, operating in a sphere without strict borders, already comply with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and realize more stringent regulation is on the horizon.

The digital charter is simply the opening salvo in a long war to come over the governance of technology in Canada.