Canada is sleepwalking into bed with Big Tech, as politicos float between firms and public office

Sort of inevitable, unfortunately:

Canadians have been served a familiar dish of election promises aimed at taking on the American web giants. But our governments have demonstrated a knack for aggressive procrastination on this file.

A new initiative is providing a glimpse into Canada’s revolving door with Big Tech, and as the clock ticks on the Liberal government’s hundred-day promise to enact legislation, Canadians have 22 reasons to start asking tough questions.

The Regulatory Capture Lab — a collaboration between FRIENDS(formerly Friends of Canadian Broadcasting), the Centre for Digital Rights and McMaster University’s Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program — is shedding light on a carousel of unconstrained career moves between public policy teams at Big Tech firms and federal public offices. 

Canadians should review this new resource and see for themselves the creeping links between the most powerful companies on earth and the institutions responsible for reining them in. 

And they’d be wise to look soon. According to the Liberal government, a wave of tech-oriented policy is in formation, from updating the Broadcasting Act to forcing tech firms to pay for journalism that appears on their platforms.

But our work raises vital questions about all these proposals: are Canadians’ interests being served through these pieces of legislation? Has a slow creep of influence over public office put Big Tech in the driver’s seat? These promises of regulation have been around for years, so, why is it taking so long to get on with it?

Cosy relations between Big Tech and those in public office in Canada have bubbled to the surface before, most notably through the work of Kevin Chan, the man for Meta (Facebook) in Canada. In 2020, the Star exposed Chan’s efforts to recruit senior analysts from within Canadian Heritage, the department leading the efforts to regulate social media giants, to work at Facebook.

It doesn’t stop there. A 2021 story from The Logic revealed the scope of Chan’s enthusiasm in advancing the interests of his employer. Under Chan’s skilful direction, Facebook has managed to get its tendrils of influence into everything — government offices, universities, even media outlets. And in so many instances, Chan has found willing participants across the aisle who offer up glowing statements about strategic partnerships with Facebook.

Facebook isn’t alone in the revolving door. For some politicos, moving between Big Tech and public office appears to be the norm, in both directions. Big Tech public policy teams are filled with people who have worked in Liberal and Conservative offices, the PMO, Heritage and Finance ministries, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, and more.

Conversely, some current senior public office holders are former Big Tech employees. Amazon, Google, Netflix, Huawei, Microsoft and Palantir are all connected through a revolving door with government. And this doesn’t even begin to cover Big Tech’s soft-power activities in Canada, from academic partnerships, deals with journalism outlets (including this one), and even shared initiatives with government to save democracy. The connections are vast and deep.

So, why has tech regulation taken so long? Armed with the knowledge that so many of Canada’s brightest public policy minds are moving between the offices of Big Tech and the halls of power in Ottawa, Canadians should be forgiven for jumping to conclusions. Or, maybe it’s just that simple? 

That these employment moves are taking place in both directions is hardly surprising. But the fact that so little attention has been paid to this phenomenon is deeply troubling. And how can this power be held to account when our journalism outlets are left with little choice but to partner with Big Tech?

The Regulatory Capture Lab has pried opened the window on this situation, but others must jump in. It’s time for Canadians to start asking tough questions. FRIENDS is ready to get the answers.

Source: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2022/01/17/canada-is-sleepwalking-into-bed-with-big-tech-as-politicos-float-between-firms-and-public-office.html

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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