Canadians Are at the Wrong End of a Data Vacuum; Let’s Fix It

Consumers are the heart of our economy, and their data is at the heart of the digital economy.

October 25, 2023
A computer circuit board with random access memory chips is portrayed in this photo illustration. (Richard B. Levine via REUTERS)

Canadians live at the wrong end of a data vacuum. Domo’s “Data Never Sleeps” report estimates that each person generates about 1.7 megabytes of data per second, equivalent to roughly 850 pages of plain text — every second. Currently, we have little control over where this data goes or who ultimately derives the greatest benefits from its use. This needs to change.

Consumers are the heart of our economy, and their data is at the heart of the digital economy. Therefore, lasting economic prosperity requires that we put consumer interests at the centre of data governance, and that we update our regulatory frameworks accordingly.

Australia recognized this years ago with the introduction of the Consumer Data Right. Its creation was prioritized because Australia recognized that giving consumers the right to control the use of their data spurs competition, innovation, prosperity and consumer choice. That’s what markets are supposed to do. And, with sound data governance and strong guardrails in place, this right also protects individual and collective freedoms and sovereignty. The alternative is higher costs, less innovation, entrenched corporate interests and fewer choices for consumers. This is never acceptable, but is even less so in 2023, as households struggle with the high cost of living, and while foreign and domestic oligopolies use our data for their benefit, not ours.

What is required for sound governance? Canada has the ingredients in place. The Digital Charter Implementation Act (Bill C-27), currently before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry and Technology, proposes to update privacy legislation and create a legal framework for artificial intelligence and data. Although there is still much to be done, the Act recognizes the importance of giving consumers control over who uses their data and for what purposes (called data mobility), and that guardrails be created so consumers can trust when and how their data is shared.

Less recognized is the need for a whole-of-government approach.

Take open banking, for example. This is essentially about making the legislative and policy changes necessary to give consumers secure and trusted control over the use of their financial data. This clearly falls under the purview of the minister of finance yet continues to face an uncertain future.

And there’s more. The provinces are responsible for certain areas of financial services and consumer protection, so federal-provincial collaboration is essential. Interoperability between privacy regimes is needed, as is an agreed framework for authenticating consumer credentials. This would provide all parties with greater certainty and trust, and consumers with greater control.

Canada can build on a strong history of sectoral collaboration. For example, the Financial Institutions Supervisory Committee brings together the relevant institutions that supervise the financial sector — this structure served Canada well during the global financial crisis of 2008.

The value of collaboration is increasingly recognized. By creating the Canadian Digital Regulators Forum, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the Competition Bureau and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner acted on the need to work together “to strengthen information sharing and collaboration on matters that relate to digital markets and platforms.” Other jurisdictions have expanded this framework to include financial regulators and online harms.

But Canada also needs to update its tool kit. Strong laws and appropriate regulations are essential, but how we currently create them can’t keep up with the accelerating pace of technological change. One way to safely improve the pace of modernization is to update the Statutory Instruments Act so that it recognizes standards as an effective instrument to streamline and accelerate digital rule-making. Standards, set in a transparent, multi-stakeholder and representative manner, can introduce the agility necessary to quickly adapt to changes in technology.

More generally, policy makers and regulators need to begin to keep up with these changes and their implications. To this end, Canada is fortunate to have the Canada School of Public Service and, at the political level, the interim measure of the Parliamentary Caucus on Emerging Technology.

As the digital transformation of our economy evolves, we need to put consumer trust and control at the centre of legislative and policy decision making. Certainly, we can learn from other jurisdictions, but restricting ourselves to being a follower increasingly limits our potential. By accelerating our own efforts, Canada can become the jurisdiction to which others look for leadership.

This piece first appeared in The Hill Times.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Authors

Colin Deacon, Senator for Nova Scotia, is a member of the Canadian Senators Group (CSG).

Robert (Bob) Fay is a CIGI senior fellow and an expert in the field of digital economy research.