NAFTA renegotiation could undermine Canada's digital freedoms

Photo: thejuniorpartner/flickr

We're just over 100 days into Donald Trump's presidency, and already there's a great deal of concern around the president's digital agenda. On privacy, Trump's Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has overseen a sharp spike in invasive digital devices searches at the border, and is even threatening to force travellers to hand over social media passwords as a matter of routine.

Meanwhile, Ajit Pai, Trump's appointee as head of the Federal Communications Commission, is aiming to overturn critical consumer safeguards, namely net neutrality, that hundreds of millions of Internet users depend on, including the many Canadians who enjoy using U.S. websites and online services.

And if that isn't enough to keep you up at night, a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) now looks imminent. First implemented in 1994, this trade deal is huge for Canada -- it impacts almost every sector of our economy, and the wrangling over whether and how it should be updated is sure to dominate headlines in the months ahead.

From a digital rights perspective, there are a number of big concerns that come along with a renegotiation of NAFTA. Canadians enjoy significantly stronger protections for privacy and net neutrality than their U.S. counterparts -- policies that could be placed at risk in the upcoming talks. We also enjoy a more flexible copyright system than our neighbours.

Recent U.S. legislation dramatically weakened rules governing the privacy of Internet users, enabling ISPs to track and sell their subscribers' information -- including their browsing history. In Canada, we have much stronger rules to prevent such abuses. Professor Michael Geist has commented that the U.S. and Canada "are on opposite tracks when it comes to the commercialization of online tracking by telecom companies" and warns that the U.S. is likely to use the NAFTA talks to force Canada to match its approach.

Canada also has some of the strongest pro-consumer net neutrality safeguards in the world, recently reinforced by the CRTC's landmark decision to ban telecom providers from engaging in discriminatory pricing practices. By contrast, the U.S. under Trump is moving to rapidly dismantle its own net neutrality safeguards, and again the concern is that they'll use NAFTA to force Canada into line with an agenda that prioritizes the narrow interests of U.S. telecom giants over the broader interests of Canadian consumers.

Perhaps most troublingly, the U.S. looks all but certain to use NAFTA to try to impose draconian new intellectual property rules on Canada. In fact, as Professor Geist notes, the U.S. starting position for NAFTA looks very similar to their stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This is especially worrying given that the TPP proposed extending Canada's copyright terms by 20 years, robbing our public domain and costing our economy hundreds of millions.

With so many fundamental issues on the table, it's fair to say that Canada's overall ability to chart its own digital policy direction is now at stake. Over recent years, Canada's digital direction has diverged significantly from that of the U.S., and this divergence has unequivocally been to the benefit of Canadian Internet users.

That's why it's essential that Canada's negotiating team not only push back against U.S. demands on the specific policy areas outlined here, but also make clear that Canada will continue to shape a digital policy agenda that works for Canadians, and will not allow itself to be forced into line with America's anti-consumer approach.

At OpenMedia, we'll be watching developments closely, and you can stay in the loop by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and our website at OpenMedia.org

David Christopher is Interim Communications and Campaigns Director for OpenMedia, a non-profit organization that works to keep the Internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free.

Photo: thejuniorpartner/flickr

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