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Trump will be gone. But Canada might not have a freer hand to regulate multinational internet giants under President Joe Biden


OTTAWA—Navdeep Bains chooses his words carefully when asked what a Biden administration could mean for Canada’s approach to big tech regulation.

Surely Canada would have a freer hand under President Joe Biden to regulate and tax multinational internet giants, without Donald Trump threatening trade sanctions and tariffs?

“I would say there’s a broader understanding that protectionism is on the rise in the U.S.,” Bains, Canada’s industry minister, told the Star in an interview this week.

“Even with the current administration, the future administration, we need to be mindful of those challenges that exist.”

In other words: just because Trump will soon be gone, don’t expect Canada will necessarily take a more activist approach to internet giants.

For years, the Liberal government has talked about the influence the FAANGs — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google — have on the Canadian economy and citizens.

Ottawa has attempted to address some of the challenges those multinational giants bring with them in a piecemeal way: election integrity rules in 2019; changes to the Broadcasting Act; forcing companies to support Canadian content; and most recently a long-awaited update to Canada’s private sector privacy laws. A promised tax on tech giants’ advertising revenues and profits from Canadian user data has yet to materialize, but is still on the plate.

When France imposed a similar tax, Trump threatened to levy $2.4 billion (U.S.) in tariffs on French goods — including champagne and cheese. French President Emmanuel Macron eventually agreed to delay the tax plans.

Surely Biden wouldn’t take a similar move against Canada, slapping tariffs on maple syrup and hockey?

Fenwick McKelvey isn’t so sure. McKelvey, who researches digital politics and policy at Concordia University, said over the Trump years there has been a gradual recasting of American big tech as a strategic industry for the U.S.

That’s unlikely to change under a Biden administration, McKelvey said.

“I think the Biden administration might at least bring more coherence to this file,” McKelvey said.

“That might create opportunities to at least become more … predictable for Canada, even if that means Canada has to be in a delicate dance of trying to protect its national interest against what could potentially be an America that sees tech companies as part of their strategic interests.”

Much will depend on who Biden appoints for key roles in shaping U.S. tech and legal policy. On that front, people close to big tech have already been put in prominent positions.

Politico reported earlier this week that four people close to Facebook or its CEO Mark Zuckerberg — two former board members, a former director, a former lobbyist, and a program manager — have been put in prominent positions on Biden’s transition team.

Vice-president-elect Kamala Harris, a senator from California whose constituency includes Silicon Valley, is broadly seen as friendly with big tech, and she counts some of the industry’s executives among her donors.

And if the markets are any indication, Biden and Harris’s victory was met with a sigh of relief around Silicon Valley. The Financial Times reported that, even before Biden was officially declared the winner of the Nov. 3 presidential election, big tech stocks surged.

But there is a vocal constituency within Biden’s own party that wants to see big tech face further regulation. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is reportedly being considered for a cabinet position, pitched breaking up big tech monopolies as part of her bid for the Democratic ticket.

“Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy,” Warren wrote in March 2019. “They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”

In October, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives anti-trust subcommittee produced what has been called a “road map” for breaking up big tech.

“The open internet has delivered significant benefits to Americans and the U.S. economy … (but) over the past decade, the digital economy has become highly concentrated and prone to monopolization,” the subcommittee reported.

“Several markets investigated by the subcommittee — such as social networking, general online search, and online advertising — are dominated by just one or two firms … Just a decade into the future, 30 per cent of the world’s gross economic output may lie with these firms, and just a handful of others.”

Taylor Owen, the Beaverbrook Chair of Media, Ethics and Communication at McGill University, said Canada’s position on big tech governance should not be totally focused on where the Biden administration moves on these issues.

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“Either we establish our own laws and make our own rules, or we risk giving up significant jurisdiction over core aspects of our speech, data and economic policy,” Owen said Friday.

“What’s more, there is a growing case that aligned democracies, when legislating with some degree of co-ordination, could have a real impact. We should therefore be looking to these like-minded democracies — such as Germany, France, the U.K. and Australia — rather than the U.S. for governance signals and collaboration.”

That message isn’t lost on Bains. The industry minister told the Star the Liberal government would continue to pursue tech policy that’s “in the national interest.” And after four years of sparring with the Trump administration, the Canadian government has gotten used to looking elsewhere for likeminded allies.





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