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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, both seen here on Oct. 10, 2019, offer different takes on where the responsibility lies when it comes to risks arising from the web.


Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.

In recent years, there has been growing concern worldwide with the privacy risks associated with mass data collection online, the potential for rapid dissemination of hate speech and other harmful content on the internet, and the competitive challenges posed by technology companies – often labelled “web giants” – that are enormously popular with the public but which do not fit neatly into conventional cultural and economic policies.

The internet-policy proposals contained in the Liberal and Conservative platforms offer dramatically different answers to the question that sits at the heart of these policy issues: Who should bear responsibility for the potential risks that arise from the internet?

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For the Liberals, this is largely an internet-platform issue. Their policy proposals adopt European-style regulatory reforms that seek to impose a host of new digital taxes and online regulations. The position represents a dramatic shift from 2015, when the Liberals emphasized innovation, welcoming the economic and cultural opportunities arising from the online environment.

By contrast, the Conservatives focus primarily on personal responsibility. While the platform includes some new measures related to internet platforms, the party largely rejects the global “tech-lash” that seems to have informed the Liberal position.

Consider the competing approaches to harmful online speech. The Liberals promise to introduce new legal requirements “that all platforms remove illegal content, including hate speech, within 24 hours or face significant financial penalties.” The policy, which borrows from similar rules in Germany, is intended to put pressure on internet platforms to more aggressively remove online content. The Conservatives do not propose comparable regulations. Instead, the party’s platform focuses on cyberbullying with plans to establish civil liability for parents and guardians for the cyberbullying activities of their kids. In other words, responsibility lies with people, not platforms.

The differing approach is also evident in their approach to online privacy. The Liberals point to their Digital Charter, which promises a host of new reforms including stronger enforcement, consent standards and European-style rules. The Conservatives are also focused on better privacy protection, but they point to the need for plain-language policies in order to obtain valid consent. The difference is subtle but important: The Liberals view better privacy safeguards through better regulation, while the Conservatives believe it can be achieved by better informed personal choices.

Even the much-discussed policy battle over “Netflix taxes” feature important differences. After years of rejecting new taxes, the Liberals are all-in, promising new digital sales taxes, a new 3-per-cent corporate tax on technology companies and a mandated contribution in support of Canadian content.

The Conservatives are clearly much more reluctant to embrace new digital taxes. The policy platform says nothing about either new digital sales taxes or mandated cultural contributions. In fact, the cultural policies instead talk generically about working in a “consultative way” to ensure that government policies adapt to the digital environment. The signal is clear: The internet provides new opportunities to compete, not for new handouts.

Even the Conservatives’ one new “Netflix tax” comes with a caveat. The party also proposes a 3-per-cent tax on large tech companies that provide social media, search, and online marketplace services (in other words, Facebook, Google, and Amazon but not Netflix). But the platform also notes that its preference would be for those companies to invest and further establish themselves in Canada. If they do so, the party promises to waive the extra tech company corporate tax.

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Perhaps the biggest surprise in the Conservative platform is that it does not touch on the affordability of wireless and internet services. The party plans to rejig rural broadband initiatives, but seems content to leave communications services to the market and the existing regulatory efforts led by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Given the frustration of successive governments – both Liberal and Conservative – to address the wireless affordability issue, maintaining the existing approach does not inspire much confidence.

The differing approaches to internet policy offer a somewhat unexpected choice with one party embracing regulatory solutions to the online platforms and the other placing its belief in empowering people with better information and personal responsibility. The best policies likely involve a combination of the two.

Privacy policies alone, no matter how easy to understand, will never fully replace legal safeguards and enforcement. Meanwhile, the evidence suggests that a competitive cultural sector need not rely on a suite of new Netflix taxes. Getting the right policy mix will not be easy, but it should emerge a top priority for whoever forms Canada’s next government.

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