Opinion: Canada must be a decision-maker – not a rule-maker – on digital technologies

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According to recent media reports, Facebook uses data to allow advertisers to target inappropriate content on children that may be harmful to their health. Apple last month unveiled a feature that allows iPhone users to prevent apps from sharing their content without permission. Facebook says such a policy will hurt small businesses. Apple says privacy is a basic human right and its new service is necessary to protect its users. The two companies are arguing the problem in the media and through highly paid lobbyists.

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

Such rules are necessary not only for casually scrolling Facebook on your iPhone, but for the deployment of an entire suite of new transformative technologies, such as blockchain, 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 safeguards for technology, specifying what is acceptable and what is not. Standards are built into all hardware and software. This is the reason why all USB sticks are the same size and your laptop can connect to any WiFi network.

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Standards encourage entrepreneurship and investment by creating a predictable environment in which companies can design products and services that integrate with each other. In addition to intellectual property and data, they are proven market accelerators.

But standards don’t just define the world, they shape it. Standard setting has always been partisan, reflecting the priorities of the countries and organizations that draft them. There is intense competition in the world to create rules that influence the development of advanced technologies. And this is a danger for Canada, because we have always been passive standards-takers.

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

Ontario unveiled an ambitious plan to make the province a ‘premier digital jurisdiction’, pledging to meet standards for data use and create a new data authority to help unleash the power of data for economic and social purposes. Unveiling Ontario’s new digital strategy, Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy was candid about the scale of the challenge. “We need to work quickly and securely to meet and exceed global standards for digital initiatives, otherwise we risk falling behind,” he said, noting that other jurisdictions have started this work. years ago”.

China has published a plan to expand its influence on international rules in a wide range of strategic industries, including 5G, Internet of Things and cleantech. In response, a bipartisan bill in the United States seeks to reaffirm American leadership in setting international standards for emerging technologies. Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called China’s determination to assert itself as “a wake-up call, one hell of a shit moment.” China, he said, “sets the standards for the future.”

At the same time, the European Union, encouraged by its ability to make its General Data Protection Regulation the de facto global benchmark for privacy, is now aiming to repeat the feat with new regulatory proposals requiring data protection systems. artificial intelligence are tested, certified and inspected.

While Washington and Beijing can count on the gravitational pull of their huge economies to influence standard setting and markets in their interests, Canada does not have that luxury. Rather, we need to be the first to be creative in integrating Canadian interests into the standards.

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

In the coming weeks, the Standards Council of Canada will release its roadmap for creating and implementing new data governance standards. It is essential that this leaves space for new agile approaches to develop new standards. Too often Canada relies on bureaucratic processes that are proprietary or too cumbersome to allow us to keep pace with other countries, let alone get ahead. them.

We also need to encourage widespread adoption of standards once they have been drafted. Encouraging companies to certify and comply with standards will accelerate their adoption. Governments could prioritize companies that adopt certain standards in competitions for contracts with suppliers. Public sector agencies could also help small and medium-sized businesses by identifying areas where commercial products and services could help these businesses implement trusted standards.

Rules are needed to govern the global digital economy, including for new digital health certificates. Countries compete to squeeze their values, priorities and technologies into the mix. If Canada is moving too slowly, we may not like what it has agreed to on our behalf.

Keith Jansa is Executive Director of the IOC Strategic Council. Michel Girard is a senior fellow at the Center for Innovation in International Governance.

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