Canada must be a rule maker – not a rule taker – on digital technologies

This opinion article by Keith Jansa, CIOSC executive director, and Michel Girard, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, first appeared in the Globe and Mail.

According to recent media reports, Facebook exploits data to allow advertisers to target inappropriate content at children that may damage their health. Last month, Apple unveiled a feature that allows iPhone users to block apps from sharing their content without permission. Facebook claims such a policy will hurt small businesses. Apple says privacy is a fundamental human right and its new service is necessary to protect its users. Both companies are battling over the issue in the media and through highly paid lobbyists.

But the only thing the dispute highlights for certain, and one the two tech giants can agree on, is this: We desperately need to codify rules that govern the use of our data, including use of automated decision-making.

Such rules are necessary not just for casually scrolling through Facebook on your iPhone, but for the rollout of an entire suite of transformative new technologies, such as blockchain, the Internet of Things and digital health certificates for our post-COVID world. These codified rules – uniform standards – are essential to any industry because they establish guardrails for technology, specifying what is acceptable and what is not. Standards are embedded in all hardware and software. They are a reason all USB keys are the same size and your laptop can connect to any WiFi network.

Standards encourage entrepreneurship and investment by creating a predictable environment in which companies can design products and services that integrate with one another. Alongside intellectual property and data, they are proven market accelerators.

But standards don’t simply define the world, they shape it. Standard setting has always been partisan, reflecting the priorities of the countries and organizations that write them. There is intense competition around the world to create rules that influence how cutting-edge technologies will develop. And therein lies a danger for Canada, because we have always been passive standard takers.

Recent news from the federal and Ontario governments offers hope that better strategies are ahead. The federal budget contained $9.8-billion in spending to enhance data-driven capabilities that aim to advance innovation in the digital marketplace. As part of that funding, the Standards Council of Canada will receive $8.4-million to build industry-wide data governance standards.

Ontario has unveiled an ambitious plan to make the province a “world-leading digital jurisdiction,” committing to act on standards for data use and creating a new Data Authority to help unlock the power of data for economic and social benefit. Unveiling Ontario’s new digital strategy, Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy was frank about the scale of the challenge. “We must work swiftly and safely to meet and exceed global standards for digital initiatives, or risk falling behind,” he said, pointing out that other jurisdictions started this work “years ago.”

China has published a blueprint for extending its influence over international rules in a swath of strategic industries, including 5G, the Internet of Things and clean technologies. In response, a bipartisan bill in the United States is aiming to reassert American leadership in setting international standards for emerging technologies. Mark Warner, the Senate Intelligence Committee chair, referred to China’s push for dominance as “a wake-up call, a holy crap moment.” China, he said, “is setting the standards for the future.”

Meanwhile, the European Union, encouraged by its ability to make its General Data Protection Regulation the de facto global privacy benchmark, is now aiming to repeat the feat with new proposed regulations requiring artificial intelligence systems to be tested, certified and inspected.

While Washington and Beijing can rely on the gravitational pull of their enormous economies to sway standard setting and markets in their interests, Canada does not have that luxury. Instead, we need to be creative first movers to embed Canadian interests in standards.

We need a two-step approach. First, we need a national view on our priorities related to AI and data governance. Then, we need to decide how best to get there. We need to be deliberate about what standards need to be designed in Canada first to reflect our priorities and values. These can then be used to ensure that future international agreements truly meet our needs.

In the next few weeks, the Standards Council of Canada will release its roadmap for creating and implementing new standards in data governance. It is essential that it allows space for novel agile approaches to developing new standards. Too often, Canada relies on bureaucratic processes that are exclusive or too cumbersome to enable us to keep up with other countries, let alone outpace them.

We also need to encourage the broad adoption of standards once they’ve been written. Providing incentives for companies to certify and comply with standards will speed up their adoption. Governments could prioritize companies that adopt certain standards in competitions for supplier contracts. Public sector agencies could also help small and medium-sized businesses by identifying areas in which commercial products and services could help those businesses implement trusted standards.

Rules are needed to govern the global digital economy, including for new digital health certificates. Countries are competing to insert their values, priorities and technologies into the mix. If Canada moves too slowly, we might not like what they agree to on our behalf.

Keith Jansa is executive director of the CIO Strategy Council. Michel Girard is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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