Trudeau government unveils plans for digital overhaul

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government set the stage Tuesday for an overhaul of Canada's laws governing the internet and digital privacy.
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains unveiled plans Tuesday for a new digital charter. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government set the stage Tuesday for an overhaul of Canada's laws governing the internet and digital privacy.

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains today unveiled elements of the government's long-awaited digital strategy. Among other things, the strategy includes a digital charter that guarantees Canadians data portability — the ability of consumers to retain data when changing services.

Bains said the ten-point digital charter will lay out the government's basic principles for online governance, including universal access, safety and security, user control over personal data, transparency and portability and keeping digital platforms free from hate and violent extremism.

Bains said there would be "clear, meaningful penalties for violations of the laws and regulations that support these principles." He did not say how stiff the penalties might be, or whether they could reach the level of fines being levied on tech giants by European nations — such as the fine of 50 million euros France slapped on Google earlier this year.

The government also is promising to strengthen the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), the privacy law that governs private sector corporations. PIPEDA has not been substantially updated since the early 2000s and has grown increasingly out of date in comparison with new privacy laws adopted around the world.

Bains also is calling on Canada's competition watchdog to take an active role in fostering a level digital playing field.

"The government will ensure fair competition in the online marketplace," Bains told an Empire Club lunch meeting today. "We want to facilitate the growth of Canadian businesses and affirm Canada's leadership on digital and data innovation, while protecting Canadian consumers from market abuses."

Bains said he has written to Matthew Boswell, federal commissioner of competition, to ensure he has the tools necessary to ensure healthy competition in the digital environment.

In his letter to Boswell, Bains said it's important to ensure that Canada's laws, policy and practices are keeping pace with the marketplace.

"We must review how to continue to manage the risks and ill effects of data abuse and of the potentially emerging data monopolies," he wrote. "While there has been considerable focus on privacy and on digital infrastructure, we must also reflect upon the potential for market distortions, and for unforeseen disruptions where abuses of market power can occur in the collection, processing and use of data."

Bains' call for Canada's competition watchdog to play a greater role in policing tech giants comes as companies like Facebook are facing calls in the U.S. for greater regulation, and as questions are being raised about whether the company should be broken up under antitrust laws.

The government also will review the Statistics Act, which landed in the headlines last year after news emerged of Statistics Canada's controversial plan to collect banking information of Canadians. Bains said the government wants to ensure Canadians can trust the way Statistics Canada is handling their data.

With only four weeks left in Parliament's calendar before it rises for the summer, and only five months left before the next election, it's not clear how much concrete change can be implemented before Canadians go to the polls.

Conservative critic Dan Albas said his party would do a better job of protecting data and privacy but added the Conservatives will only unveil their platform before the next election.

"The Liberals' so-called Digital Charter is typical Justin Trudeau, all flash and no substance," Albas said in a statement. "With only five months before the federal election, it's nothing more than an election ploy to distract from the Liberals' dismal record on data and privacy issues."

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca


Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.