The year ahead for digital rights in Canada

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Image: Gilles Lambert/Unsplash

2019 was a big year for digital rights in Canada, particularly in combination with the federal election and the formation of a new minority government. There's been lots of progress for internet access, online privacy and free expression -- and also a few setbacks. 

As we start a new year, let's look back at some of the highlights from last year and what is ahead for our digital rights. 

Internet

Canada has been reviewing the laws that govern all of its communications systems for the past year. From net neutrality to cell phone affordability, this review covers a wide range of issues, and its outcome will impact how we access and use the internet for decades to come. The Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review panel will release its final report in the coming weeks, so keep your eyes peeled!

The CRTC receives a new policy direction

After years of decisions that put big telecom's interests before those of regular people, the tables turned at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The government finally issued a new policy direction that promotes "competition, affordability, consumer interests and innovation." This was a major step forward for Canada's telecommunications policy, but we still have to wait and see how this new direction will be applied to future decisions. 

The CRTC launches a review of Canada's cellphone market

The CRTC is about to culminate its review of Canada's wireless market with in-person hearings in Gatineau next month after hearing from a wide variety of stakeholders, including thousands of OpenMedia community members who filled out a detailed survey on this issue. 

Best of all, after years of repeatedly denying market access to mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) -- smaller cell phone providers who lease spectrum from the bigger telecoms -- the CRTC has signalled that it is open to allowing these to enter the market and bolster competition. If the review goes in the right direction, this could mean the beginning of a whole new era for mobile customers.

The B.C. government launches a cellphone consultation

The B.C. government launched a consultation to hear about British Columbians' experiences with their cell phone providers and contracts in an effort to improve customer protections at the provincial level. The consultation's report came out in November, and the results, though unsurprising, signal that some positive changes may be around the corner. We expect new legislation to be introduced in 2020. 

The CRTC sets final wholesale rates for broadband providers

In August the CRTC significantly lowered the rates that internet service providers (ISPs) can charge independent providers for network access. As a result, a handful of independent ISPs like TekSavvy and Distributel passed the savings on to their customers in the form of lower bills and faster speeds. 

Big telecom companies are unsurprisingly opposed to the decision and are trying to overturn the decision at the Federal Court of Appeal and through cabinet. The federal court has suspended the CRTC's decision until it can confirm a hearing. If these companies succeed, internet users will see an increase in the cost of internet and less choice of providers.

Political parties and cell phone affordability

During last year's election, three major political parties (Liberals, Greens and NDP) pledged to address cell phone affordability in their platforms. This victory was the result of the advocacy of hundreds of thousands of cell phone users across Canada who believe we can do better.

Right to repair legislation picks up momentum in Canada

Last year, OpenMedia joined the push for right to repair legislation in response to the first bill of its kind in Canada, tabled by Ontario MPP Michael Coteau. The right to repair would give people the freedom to repair products they own -- from medical equipment to electronic devices to farm equipment -- by requiring manufacturers to make parts, tools and diagnostics needed for repairs available at a reasonable and non-discriminatory price. The momentum on this issue is growing, but we still face stiff opposition from corporate lobbyists at companies like Apple and John Deere.

Privacy 

StatsCan gets thousands of information requests following bank data scandal

Statistics Canada's plan to vacuum up the personal banking information -- including account balances, ATM withdrawals and credit card payments -- of thousands of people in Canada without their consent or knowledge was halted thanks to massive public outcry. But this points to a bigger problem that we are carrying into 2020: Canada is governed by outdated privacy laws, including PIPEDA and the Privacy Act. In 2020, digital rights advocates will continue to push the government to reform these laws to be in line with the digital era.

Vancouver Airport rejects ads on digital strip searches at the border

When OpenMedia set out to buy ads at the Vancouver International Airport (YVR) to educate passengers about their rights at the border when officers request to search their electronic devices, airport authorities rejected the ads with no explanation. So we doubled down on our efforts and plastered our ads on trains taking travellers to YVR. 

South of the border, however, the federal court ruled that suspicionless device searches at the border were unconstitutional. This creates an important precedent that Canada can follow. 

Extending privacy rules to political parties

It's 2020, yet Canada's political parties still refuse to be subject to federal privacy laws -- the same laws that they require companies to adhere to. Hypocritical, isn't it? Political parties hold vast amounts of data on us, but we have no idea how they use it and they are not required to disclose any data breaches. With the rise of data breaches and cyberattacks this issue will remain relevant and digital rights advocates across the country will continue to fight for political party privacy rules. 

Facial recognition: pushing for a moratorium

Facial recognition technology is invasive, biased and unreliable. What's worse is that it's not regulated by Canada's outdated privacy laws. Many Canadian government and law enforcement agencies have started using this technology without disclosure or accountability. But uncovering the use of this technology in Canada is underway and OpenMedia is committed to pushing the government to enact a moratorium on the use of the technology until it is adequately regulated.

Free Expression

Your views shaping the future of Canadian copyright

Back in 2018 OpenMedia collected public input on Canada's Copyright Act review. This input, along with that of multiple other stakeholders, played a vital role in shaping the final report of the parliamentary committee tasked with this review, which came out mid last year. In 2020, we will see how the new government incorporates this feedback to modernize our copyright laws while ensuring creators and artists are able to thrive in the 21st century.

INDU committee rejects Bell's FairPlay Canada website blocking proposal

Bell's unpopular website blocking scheme -- FairPlay Canada -- was rejected by the standing committee on industry, science and technology after also being rejected by the CRTC itself. This marks another big win for the public, which was outspoken about the issue from the beginning. The dangerous censorship proposal now sits on shaky ground before the eyes of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Acts Review panel, which will issue its verdict in the coming weeks. 

It will be interesting to see how the new government addresses the issues outlined above in 2020. But if we want Canada to become a leader in the digital rights front, we must stay vigilant and make sure we keep our representatives at all levels of government accountable.

Rodrigo Samayoa is a digital campaigner at OpenMedia.

Image: Gilles Lambert/Unsplash

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