What A Conservative Majority Means For Tech & Telecom

Well, that certainly was an exciting election! Not many people expected a Conservative majority to emerge and even fewer saw the NDP forming the official opposition. I’ll save the general political punditry for the… er… political pundits, but I can add some thoughts on what this might mean for tech, science and telecom in Canada over the next four years.

Generally speaking, a Conservative majority is not likely to be a good thing in those areas. When the election was called, I gave the Conservatives failing grades for their policies on the internet, foreign ownership and science in general while giving them barely passing grades on copyright and deregulation. I also gave them a decent mark for their treatment of wireless. For an explanation of those grades, I’d suggest checking out that post from back in March.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will doubtlessly take the majority as an endorsement of his government’s overall policies, and as well he should. Like it or not, the people have spoken. As such, it’ll be more of the same – if not more so.

During the election, a few other issues came up. First, Industry Minister Tony Clement indicated he is not at all in favour of structural separation – or the breaking up of telecom companies into network-owning and retail segments. That idea, which is gaining popularity among the public, is not likely to see the light of day until at least the next election. That’s too bad because if Canada is ever going to do it, it’s going to be a long process. The discussion needs to start happening now.

Secondly, the issue of lawful access came up. Harper promised to pass a bill within the first 100 days of Parliament that will allow police to get internet users’ personal information without a warrant. To say that’s concerning would be an understatement. The bright side is, it’s so egregious it’s very unlikely to pass  easily. I’m sure University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist, who is an expert on such issues, will have a thorough dissection on his blog poste haste (I’ll link to it when he does). I’ll write more about it too once I’ve given it some decent thought.

Thirdly, just before the election the lovely folks at Wikileaks released some cables that detailed U.S. lobbyist efforts to influence copyright law. The cables confirmed pretty much everything Geist has been saying for the past few years about how the Conservatives have simply been trying to ramrod a U.S.-written law down Canadians’ throats. The government’s previous copyright reform law, Bill C-32, is going to be resurrected – the Conservatives promised as much in their platform – but it’s going to be very interesting to see how it plays out. The government may be emboldened by its majority and simply try to push it through, but I suspect the public’s opposition to it – which was already palpable – is only going to increase as well as a result of the new evidence. Copyright reform may very well ignite all-out revolt before this year is out.

From there, it’s on to new business. Clement, who was re-elected, kept promising before the election that a long-awaited “digital strategy” will be released this spring. Hopefully that still happens and while I don’t expect it to be good, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt before passing judgement.

With any luck, Clement will remain Minister of Industry. He may not seem to know how to fix many of Canada’s tech and telecom problems, but he has at least shown a solid awareness of their existence, which is much more than can be said about a good many MPs from all parties. At the very least, we can expect some sort of action on the whole usage-based billing issue, which Clement very vocally opposed.

The big bonus of a Conservative majority – and it’s a huge one – is that the government may finally move to get rid of those foreign ownership limits on telecom companies. With the fate of Wind Mobile continuing to dangle in the wind (pun intended), this is likely to be addressed quickly. All the work has been done and the hearings have been held – the trigger simply needs to be pulled.

The smart money is that the government will lift ownership restrictions on small companies, so foreigners can own the likes of Wind or start up new businesses, with the shackles coming off the big guys in a few years time. As I’ve written many, many times, this is a painfully overdue step that needs to be taken and it could ultimately be the most important thing the government can do as far as tech and telecom are concerned. In the end, Harper haters may ironically end up owing him a big debt of gratitude – his government may change the rules that eventually lead to companies such as Bell and Rogers ceasing to exist.

While the Conservatives’ performance on tech, science and telecom issues up till now has been wanting for the most part, some of that may very well have been because of the caution that a minority government must operate under. There is consequently a lot of room for improvement – let’s hope we see it.