Unpacking Canada’s New Digital Charter

On May 16, Canada unveiled its digital charter, which appears to be (perhaps unsurprisingly) more policy paper than charter. In fact, it reads more like a shopping list of programs already funded and “coming soon.” Nominally, the charter includes ten principles:

  1. Universal access
  2. Safety and security
  3. Control and consent
  4. Transparency, portability and interoperability
  5. Open and modern digital government
  6. A level playing field
  7. Data and digital for good
  8. Strong democracy
  9. Freedom from hate and violent extremism
  10. Strong enforcement and real accountability

What the charter doesn’t include is a cohesive strategy for Canada’s digital future.

The Challenge

Canada trails a number of other OECD countries in a recent innovation index and trails even more countries in R&D investment. Without a strong plan for digital innovation, Canada risks becoming a technology backwater, and suffering the economic and human consequences.

Unfortunately, there is no strategy on display in the digital charter, no regulatory framework, barely any mention of standards, and only basic measures of success, mainly spending promises and reach targets for the programs announced. Instead of bold measures, Canadians are left with quasi-inspirational language about innovation and safeguarding citizens, and a long list of programs without any apparent strategy to knit them together. Some of the more notable programs and announcements include:

  • Jobs and training
    • $60 million in new funding for the CanCode program, to support one million young Canadians in coding skills and digital literacy. This amounts to $60 per head. Since a Lynda.com license costs $35 per month alone, how digitally literate and code-savvy a million Canadians will be, $60 later, is unclear.
    • The Work Integrated Learning program, to connect 10,000 young Canadians with potential employers.
    • $30 million for non-profits to teach digital literacy to under-represented group, as part of the Digital Literacy Exchange program.
    • The Global Talent Stream program and Global Skills Strategy, to streamline hiring foreign workers. Curiously, in spite of being announced as part of the digital charter in May, the Global Talent Stream program expires in June of this year.
  • Access
    • Increased internet access for rural and northern communities through the “Connect to Innovate” program, investing $500 million in 900 rural and remote communities, including 190 Indigenous ones.
    • $5-6 billion to improve internet access and connect 100% of Canadians to the internet at speeds of 50 Mbps (download ) and 10 Mbps (upload).
    • More affordable home internet under the “Connecting Families” initiative.
    • Updates to the Telecommunications, Broadcasting and Radiocommunication acts, to promote competition and affordability for internet and mobile users.
  • Security
  • Governance
    • Creation of the Canadian Data Governance Standardization Collaborative, to “foster coordination and collaboration among business, standards-developing organizations, governments and regulators, and others.”
  • Privacy
    • Reforming PIPEDA, including:
      • “Plain language information about the handling of their personal information including when automated decision making is used.”
      • Data mobility requirements.
      • Strengthening enforcement and stiffening penalties.
      • “Ensuring that the rules for use of personal information in a commercial context are clear and enforceable, and that there are appropriate incentives for compliance.”
    • Modernizing CASL.
  • Innovation

There are a lot of noble intentions here, but also some misguided ones.

Training

The strategy assumes Canadians are a fungible commodity, a blank slate ready to receive digital literacy and job skills. This is a mid-20th century way of looking at both Canadians and skills. It hearkens back to a time when jobs such as those on a factory production line dominated the economy, and the skills required to move from one factory or line to another were transferable and reasonably easy to both teach and acquire. That’s not the case with digital skills. They’re neither as universal, nor as easy to acquire nor as transferable as production line work, and economically depressed communities around North America are finding this out the hard way.

Privacy

Bringing PIPEDA into the 21st century would be welcome, but since it’s very broad legislation, Canadians shouldn’t expect anything dramatic or soon. Updating CASL would potentially have more impact, since email communication lives in a grey area of intrusiveness: unsolicited emails and newsletters have become the new spam over the last several years.

International Initiatives

The charter’s introductory page features a smorgasbord of international bodies and initiatives the country is a part of, including everything from the Christchurch Call to Action to the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It also lists home-grown initiatives such as the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy and Smart Cities Challenge. It’s vaguely reassuring to see the country involved in so many organizations and initiatives, but how this fits together into a cohesive whole or strategy is never fully explained.

The most interesting pieces of the charter, however, are the ones that get the least mention, including:

Data interoperability

The charter says that “Smart and efficient data-sharing and data storage solutions should be explored allowing for experimentation and shared benefits to Canadians.”

Data sharing, especially if it means across social platforms, would be a bold step for Canada, and give it a leadership position internationally. However, with its current lack of specificity, this section amounts to little more than feel-good verbiage, especially as “data storage” is mysteriously thrown into the mix. What does this mean? Are Canadians suffering from a collective lack of Dropbox space? Do we need to ask Google to up our Drive limits?

Data sovereignty

The charter mentions “Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession (OCAP) and the goal of data sovereignty,” but only in regard to indigenous people. Why the government thinks this is a priority only for indigenous Canadians is mysterious. Do other Canadians care less about their privacy?

Data sovereignty is one of the areas in which Canada could lead globally, as there’s a distinct lack of progress internationally. The government would do well to make this a priority for all groups in Canada as part of this charter.

Data mobility is mentioned in relation to privacy and PIPEDA, but isn’t defined. True data mobility would include points such as the ability to port Facebook data to another network, something which isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, given Facebook’s enormous power and its utter disdain for Canadian government.

Post-secondary education

The charter mentions support for “adjunct professorships with academic institutions or in-house residencies with public sector institutions.”

Canada has made a name for itself by streamlining access to highly-skilled international professionals, especially through our visa process and via our pursuit of foreign students. Prioritizing spots for highly-skilled adjunct professors would support this direction, and reinforce Canada’s advantage.

In Summary

The charter appears to be a full-court press to convince Canadians their government is on the ball digitally, demonstrated through a list of international and domestic initiatives. The government promises lots of cash for new programs, and makes sure the reader doesn’t forget the programs already announced. Other parts of the charter, such as data sovereignty, mobility and interoperability, are genuinely interesting and could put Canada in a leadership position internationally if pursued vigorously. How quickly the promised funds are disbursed to support such programs, what the net effects are, and how the government pursues elements of the charter that don’t depend simply on funding, will ultimately determine its success.

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