Mr. Chair and members of the committee, I'm truly honoured to be here today and humbled to be nominated for the position of Commissioner of Lobbying. I have often appeared before committees, including this one, but certainly not in this chair.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss my candidacy for this position. The role of the Commissioner of Lobbying is an important one. It is defined by statute, the Lobbying Act. Its ultimate goal is to increase the confidence of Canadians in the integrity of decision-making by public office holders. It does so by recognizing that lobbying is a legitimate activity, but it must also be transparent.
First, let me briefly introduce myself and outline how my career has helped me to prepare for this role.
I was born and raised in New Brunswick. Most of my education was at the University of Ottawa. I wanted to study in both official languages and pursue a career in public law. That is why I completed a Bachelor of Social Science degree, with a major in political science and criminology, and a Bachelor of Laws and Master of Laws. I have been a member in good standing of the Law Society of Upper Canada since 1995.
Ottawa is also where I met my partner. We have outstanding young teenagers who keep me grounded.
I have had the privilege of working in the public service for over 20 years, and have met and worked with countless highly skilled and dedicated professionals. As you will observe from my curriculum vitae, I started my career as a lawyer with the Department of Justice. I moved on to work at the Federal Court, the Immigration and Refugee Board, and for the last 10 years, with two agents of Parliament: the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner and the Information Commissioner.
The positions I held with these organizations increased in responsibility. Very early on in my career I became a manager, my first real passion. I lead by example, and strongly believe that communication is paramount. I motivate and engage employees so they feel valued and supported in their daily work while achieving their career aspirations. In turn, I am very thankful for the dedication and support that my colleagues and employees have given me over the years.
Having served almost exclusively with institutions that are independent from government, I profoundly understand the need to live by and perform my duties with the highest standard of integrity and impartiality. I also understand the important role of agents of Parliament vis-à-vis Parliament and Canadians.
The Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying supports the integrity of public officials’ decision-making by ensuring that those who lobby them are behaving in an ethical and transparent manner.
This mandate is threefold
First, maintaining a registry that contains and makes public the registration information disclosed by lobbyists. In this respect, the registry is an essential tool for ensuring that lobbying activities are transparent. It therefore needs to be technologically up to date, effective and accessible.
Second, the commissioner must develop and implement educational programs to foster public awareness of the requirements of the act. I welcome this responsibility. I have had many opportunities to give presentations to a variety of stakeholders. Awareness activities play an important part in ensuring that all stakeholders, in this case lobbyists, their clients, and public office holders, understand their obligations and requirements under the act.
And lastly, the commissioner must ensure compliance with the Lobbying Act and the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct by conducting thorough reviews and investigations. As a jurist, I have extensive experience in interpreting legislation and codes. I am also very familiar with investigation processes that are subject to the rules of natural justice and procedural fairness. I believe that it is always appropriate to examine and re-evaluate practices in order to ensure that the act is understood and implemented effectively.
Ultimately, my experience working with agents of Parliament in the areas of transparency, conflict of interest, and ethics would enable me to bring this acquired knowledge and expertise together under one mandate. I want to acknowledge the outstanding work of Commissioner Shepherd during her tenure, and that of the dedicated professionals in her office. Should I have the privilege to be appointed as Canada's next Commissioner of Lobbying, I would build on her accomplishments with the continued support of this team.
My plan would be to enhance the profile of the office through maximized awareness and outreach initiatives with stakeholders including the Canadian public. Not only should lobbyists or future potential lobbyists instinctively have a good command of their obligations, but Canadians should also be aware of the role of the office in supporting the integrity of decision-making by public office holders.
I believe that I have the experience and the ability to carry out the significant responsibilities of the Commissioner of Lobbying. I am ready to meet this challenge.
Should the committee and Parliament entrust me with the honour of being the next Commissioner of Lobbying, I will continue to abide by the highest level of integrity and professionalism, perform my mandate to the best of my abilities, and provide my unwavering commitment to service that you, our Parliamentarians, and all Canadians deserve.
I thank you, Mr. Chair, and members of the committee for considering my nomination.
I will be pleased to answer your questions.
Thanks very much. Good afternoon.
As you heard, my name is Michael Geist. I'm a law professor at the University of Ottawa, where I hold the Canada research chair in Internet and e-commerce law. I'm also a member of the school's centre for law, technology, and society. My areas of specialty include digital policy and intellectual property and privacy. As you heard, I've appeared many times before this committee and as always, I appear in a personal capacity representing only my own views.
I'm grateful to the committee for its commitment to privacy and access to information and its interest in how the issue of net neutrality may affect these issues. I propose to begin this briefing with an introduction to net neutrality, followed by some comments on recent events and then considerations of the intersection between net neutrality, privacy, and access.
I'll start by noting that Canada seemed lost when it came to Internet policy a little over a decade ago. Regardless of party, this isn't a partisan issue. Government showed scant interest in the technicalities of Internet services and the CRTC stood idly by, as leading Internet providers limited speeds of some applications, a practice known as traffic shaping, and mused openly about new fees for the right to transmit content to subscribers.
Those Internet policies are unrecognizable today, as Canada has emerged as a world leader in supporting net neutrality. At its heart, net neutrality means that all content and applications should be treated equally and that the choices made by Internet users should be free from ISP or telecom interference. Policies don't guarantee Internet success. No law can do that, but it signals a clear commitment to placing consumers and creators in the Internet driver's seat.
The foundation of Canadian policy lies in four CRTC decisions that address practices, such as managing Internet traffic to limit speeds for some applications or creating pricing plans at a so-called zero rate, so that certain content doesn't count against monthly data consumption caps. CRTC policies now restrict these practices by recognizing that net neutrality preserves the common carrier approach for ISPs and encourages marketplace competition and innovation that's based on price, speed, and the quality of networks.
The CRTC's approach also allows Canadians to file complaints about net neutrality violations, which they've done on occasion. The CRTC would then proceed to investigate and, in some instances, conduct hearings into some of the broader implications raised by the concern. The policies also provide for greater transparency of network management practices, which requires ISPs to disclose how they manage their networks and what their practices will mean for consumers' Internet use.
In recent weeks, we've seen Canadian leaders and regulators make their support for net neutrality clear. For example, , the ISED minister responded to the U.S. developments, which I'll talk about in just a couple of minutes, by affirming that “Canada will continue to stand for diversity and freedom of expression. Our government remains committed to the principles of net neutrality”. Canadian heritage minister has similarly endorsed net neutrality and emerged as a proponent.
It should be noted that some cultural groups have called on the government to abandon net neutrality by mandating preferential treatment for Canadian content. These recommendations have come as recently as last week. They were just posted online in the last day or two, as part of the CRTC consultation on the future of broadcasting.
However, has affirmed that the principle remains at the core of Canadian cultural policy, noting that, “we will continue to champion the internet as a progressive force and an open space without barriers. As a government, we stand by the principle of net neutrality.”
In the United States, this has been a highly politicized issue and we see changes from chair to chair at the regulator. The same is not true in Canada. Canada's commitment to net neutrality has been similarly endorsed at the regulatory level. We have a new CRTC chair, Ian Scott. Just last month, he told an industry conference:
||As companies continue to innovate in their offerings to Canadians, the CRTC will continue to ensure that Canada’s Internet neutrality provisions are respected. ...owners and operators of the country’s communications may not discriminate against content based on its origin or destination.
That's the Canadian situation.
As you know, the FCC, the U.S. telecommunications regulator, plans to roll back net neutrality regulations, which has sparked an immediate backlash from the Internet community. There are fears that the decision will turn the Internet in the U.S. into a cable-like service, which is dominated by the carriers, where only deep-pocketed giants can afford to pay new fees to keep their content in the fast lane.
That U.S. order, which would also block U.S. states from implementing their own versions of net neutrality, is set for a vote next week.
Canadian consumers may be shielded from the net neutrality abuses rolled back in the United States in their home Internet use, but I think the effects of the U.S. decision may still be felt here. Since Canadian traffic often transits through the United States, there are some concerns that Canadian data could be caught by non-neutral policies.
Moreover, Canadian Internet services that are hoping to attract U.S. customers and subscribers may face the same demands for payments to have their content delivered on the fast track.
Since the NAFTA renegotiations include a chapter on digital trade, I believe that Canadian negotiators should be pushing for the inclusion of a strong, enforceable, net neutrality provision in that agreement. In fact, earlier this week, the lead Canadian negotiator, Steve Verheul, told a Commons committee that Canada wants a net neutrality provision included in the digital trade chapter in NAFTA. I think that would be a good step, particularly if the provision has some real teeth.
Now it should be noted that there is a direct and important connection between net neutrality and privacy, and that's why this committee's briefing is apt. Canada has long recognized the dangers that would come from active monitoring of telecom and Internet users. Neutrality, whether in our telephone networks or our Internet networks, has always included a link to privacy.
For example, one of the early net neutrality concerns involved Internet telephony, voice over IP, services like Skype, that offer the prospect of cheaper, secure, encrypted communications in many instances. Yet some of the providers saw these services as a competitor, and there were reports of blockages or degrading of speeds to render the services less usable. That was true in the United States in a case known as Madison River, and true in Canada under some of the early net neutrality complaints. It's net neutrality rules that help ensure that doesn't happen.
Similarly, the first CRTC net neutrality decision, which was called “Internet traffic management practices” or how the ISPs manage their networks, included considerable discussion on carrier practices involving deep packet inspection, technology that allows them to examine the type of content that's running on their networks.
The technology raised significant privacy concerns, and the CRTC ultimately issued an order that “all primary ISPs, as a condition of providing retail Internet services, not...use for other purposes personal information collected for the purposes of traffic management and not...disclose such information.” In other words, the net neutrality rules they established under that decision established additional privacy safeguards around the information that they might collect through deep packet inspection. That was from the very first key net neutrality decision.
I would argue that net neutrality also has a strong connection to access to information. Just this week we saw reports that Bell plans to ask the CRTC to create a website blocking agency, which would develop block lists without court review, which highlights, I think, how carriers may interfere with access to content.
In a recent submission to the CRTC released just in the last couple of days, Bell linked their perceived need for blocking of unauthorized streaming sites and downloading services with the success of its CraveTV service, arguing that blocking access to those sites would result in hundreds of thousands of new subscribers. I think that claim is debatable, but what it highlights, from my perspective, is that the incentives to block content in carrier self-interest, particularly for the very large, vertically integrated companies, is very real.
Indeed, the very first Canadian net neutrality case involved Telus, which infamously blocked access during a labour dispute to a site called for Voices for Change. Telus maintains that it hasn't repeated the blocking approach, but the fact that it did so, and believed that it could exercise the power to do so, demonstrates why there is a need for clear legislative safeguards against content blocking.
, the Parliament Secretary to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, yesterday in the House of Commons told the House that “net neutrality is the critical issue of our times, much like freedom of the press and freedom of expression that came before it.”
I would say that, given the critical role played by the Internet in all walks of life and the exceptional power wielded by carriers, Mr. Lametti is right.
I look forward to your questions.