December 8, 2019

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Political parties urged to commit to policies for data-driven economy

The CN Tower can be seen in the Toronto skyline in Toronto, Ontario on Tuesday, April 25, 2017. Chambers of commerce from Canada's biggest cities will release a campaign wish list Wednesday urging political parties to commit to establishing national data-governance standards, making government research more available for businesses and fully harnessing the value of intellectual property. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

The CN Tower can be seen in the Toronto skyline in Toronto, Ontario on Tuesday, April 25, 2017. Chambers of commerce from Canada's biggest cities will release a campaign wish list Wednesday urging political parties to commit to establishing national data-governance standards, making government research more available for businesses and fully harnessing the value of intellectual property. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

OTTAWA - Chambers of commerce from Canada's biggest cities will release a campaign wish list Wednesday urging political parties to commit to establishing national data-governance standards, making government research more available for businesses and fully harnessing the value of intellectual property.

These issues are likely to draw more attention from politicians than in the past. Experts, however, have doubts any party will go far enough to prepare Canada to compete in the new economy and to fully protect the privacy of its citizens.

Four years ago, issues related to data governance, intellectual property and digital privacy received few, if any, mentions in party plans. Since then, there's been a surge in awareness about the opportunities tied to the fast-growing innovation economy as well as in public concerns about the risks.

Parties have sent signals their platforms will include vows in these areas and business leaders from Canada's urban centres hope to start the conversation at the outset of the campaign, which begins Wednesday.

"The permeation of technology in nearly every aspect of our lives mandates the need for new legislation that creates a predictable and level playing field for businesses while ensuring that Canadian interests are protected," the Canadian Global Cities Council, which is made up of chambers of commerce from the country's eight largest cities, said in its pre-election release.

The document also noted new "serious concerns around privacy and personal control of data."

Jan De Silva, CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade, said the council has been actively discussing the need for these policies with political parties.

"I would say there's heightened awareness on the part of all parties in terms of what's next with the economy," De Silva said in an interview. "From my travels, this is a top-of-mind issue in many markets around the world."

The council will also release additional recommendations Wednesday to press parties in several other areas such as diversifying trade, helping smaller companies get government business and conducting a comprehensive review of the tax system.

Among its recommendations on the digital economy, the council is stressing a need for the next federal government to improve business access to data and research held by Statistics Canada and to take steps to make it easier for companies to capture the value of IP.

It's also calling for a national data strategy to guide companies on data portability, privacy, security and commercialization.

After taking office, the Liberal government said it would work toward a national data strategy. Last spring, it released principles under a "digital charter" that critics say lacked firm policies, regulations or standards.

Political parties, for the most part, have yet to say very much about these issues. Last week, however, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said, if elected, he would set regulatory standards for the ethical use of artificial intelligence and to protect the privacy of consumers and their data.

Since the 2015 election, the "surveillance economy" has become a bigger public concern for a number of reasons, says Dan Breznitz, co-director of the Innovation Policy Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

For instance, he said more and more of people's lives are now managed through their smart phones, which has made the issues very personal.

He also said there are deepening worries about technological disruption of the labour force and how the inappropriate use of social-media data can alter electoral outcomes.

The Liberals, he said, came to power with a realization that the innovation economy was important and they talked about it. Business leaders and public intellectuals fuelled the public debate.

Politicians, however, are reluctant to make major changes because innovation policies are longer-term, complex, sometimes hard to explain and attract limited media attention, he said.

"On one side, those issues are much more prominent, and business leaders and people ... start to realize that those things — data and IP and innovation — will determine whether we can continue to be a prosperous society," he said.

"On the other, there's still a very ... confused understanding of what innovation is all about and, therefore, what should be the IP and data policies involved."

Dan Ciuriak, an innovation-policy expert, said he doesn't expect serious debate about the data-driven economy during the campaign. He noted the issues cannot be addressed through "sound-bite messaging," nor will they swing many votes.

He recommended Canada adapt its regulations and policies on such an important issue in a manner "free of ideology."

"The federal civil service is really only starting to grapple with the issues," Ciuriak, a former deputy chief economist of Canada's foreign-affairs department who now runs a consultancy, wrote in an email.

"Change is happening at a speed that is overwhelming the ability to learn about governance from experience."

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