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Time for Ottawa to get serious about regulating big tech, says new shadow minister

Time for Ottawa to get serious about regulating big tech, says new shadow minister

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel says that it’s past time for the federal government to impose serious data and privacy regulations on big tech, and she has plans to use the minority parliament in Ottawa to force the issue.

On Friday, Rempel was officially appointed as the official opposition shadow minister for innovation, science and industry, just a few days after privacy commissioners in Ottawa and British Columbia concluded a lengthy investigation into a Canadian company implicated in the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal.

The probe found that B.C.-based AggregateIQ had broken privacy laws in its handling of a massive trove of Facebook data that was used for political messaging purposes without proper consent, but that the regulators had no power to levy fines against the firm.

Rempel called the lack of fines a failure of government and said returning minister Navdeep Bains — whose Liberal government released a Digital Charter in the run-up to the federal election laying out a series of broad intentions such as “A level playing field” and “Strong Enforcement and Real Accountability” — has failed to enact meaningful regulation.

“We’re beyond that. I mean, you have to look at Google in the same way we’d look at a company like Monsanto or DuPont in terms of regulating their operations to make sure that the environment is safe while jobs are created. Just the context is different,” Rempel said.

“The AggregateIQ outcome is a perfect example of this failure. Because if the Digital Charter actually worked, or had any sort of teeth to it, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

The Financial Post made multiple interview requests to Bains’ office in the wake of the AggregateIQ report, but the minister was not made available.

“Our competitiveness depends on our ability to use digital innovation to harness the power of data, but not at the expense of Canadians’ trust,” spokeswoman Dani Keenan said in a statement sent on Bains’ behalf. “That’s why, earlier this year, Minister Bains unveiled Canada’s Digital Charter, which outlines 10 key principles for continued Canadian leadership in the digital and data driven economy.”

Around the world, the gold-standard for data and privacy regulation has been GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), the European regulatory behemoth that caused a lot of excitement in 2018. However, since coming into force the law has faced heavy criticism for being too cumbersome and difficult to enforce.

In the United States, much of the conversation has focused on anti-trust, and the possibility of breaking up the biggest tech companies.

Rempel said she doesn’t favour either of those approaches.

She wouldn’t get into the specific policy proposals the Conservatives plan on putting forward, but she said that the minority parliament gives a chance for opposition parties to drive the agenda.

In particular, she said that using legislative committees to compel documents and civil servant testimony, along with potentially disrupting the budget process, could force the Liberals to act.

“I have some plans for our parliamentary committee. I’ll be reaching out to my opposition critics, from other political parties. And I think that, regardless of political stripe, we should be able to get some consensus on this,” Rempel said.

While she did not want to give away her legislative agenda, one specific idea that Rempel raised is the concept that data and privacy should be valued as forms of labour; we all create data in the course of our lives, and if we put a price on that “work” it could create an economy for data and privacy.

Rempel said that she doesn’t blame tech companies for taking advantage of the regulatory vacuum, but that as a country we need to get serious about setting boundaries for the market.

“In the history of our species, people have always made money where they could. It’s the role of government to say the framework by which that occurs, and protect the individual,” she said.

“And I think the government has abdicated their responsibility in this role.”

• Email: jmcleod@nationalpost.com | Twitter: jamespmcleod

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