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NDP and Conservatives accuse Justin Trudeau of favouring ‘Silicon Valley data giants’ over Canadian tech firms

Conservative MP Peter Kent speaks in the House of Commons in December 2017
Conservative MP Peter Kent speaks in the House of Commons in December 2017. Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP
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The federal Conservatives and the NDP are accusing the federal government of favouring foreign tech giants over Canadian firms following an analysis by The Logic showing that foreign companies have more than tripled their lobbying since Justin Trudeau became prime minister.

On Monday, The Logic published an analysis of eight years of lobbying records, which showed that 25 large, publicly traded tech companies have ramped up their presence in Ottawa under the Liberals.

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NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said little action has been taken on MPs’ recommendations for removing online hate speech and investigating anti-competitive behaviour because the government is “basically working in lockstep with the Big Data lobbyists.”

In December 2018, the House ethics committee released 26 recommendations for regulating Big Tech, including passing legislation that would require social media platforms to remove hate speech, harassment and disinformation promptly or face fines pegged to their size and having the Competition Bureau consider whether mergers and acquisitions lead to large amounts of data being consolidated.

Talking Point

The Conservatives and the NDP say the threefold increase in lobbying by foreign tech giants since Justin Trudeau became prime minister—reported by The Logic on Monday—shows that the government favours those big companies over Canadian tech firms.

Angus said the recommendations of MPs are “being ignored or tacitly undermined by the Trudeau government.” He cited Trudeau’s comments in May that internet regulation could be used to stifle free speech, made the same week that the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy questioned Big Tech executives about privacy breaches and allegedly anti-competitive practices at their firms. Angus and Kent are members of both the House ethics committee and the international grand committee.

Amazon has lobbied the most by far—438 times—under the Liberals. “There’s been many, many issues that have come forward, where we need a government that’s going to stand up for citizens and for Canada,” said Angus. “And this government will always stand up for, whether it’s Netflix, or Amazon, or Google, or Facebook—the big tech companies.”

Conservative ethics critic Peter Kent raised concerns about Facebook, noting that the company did not join the lobbyist registry until after its head of public policy, Kevin Chan, was questioned about not being registered at an April 2018 ethics committee meeting. “Facebook wasn’t reporting its interactions with ministers and members of parliament until we asked questions about it, when Mr. Chan appeared before our committee the first time,” he said. “They thought they were just being ‘helpful.’”

Asked to respond to the concern about Chan’s filing, Erin Taylor, Facebook’s communications manager, said the company didn’t hit the legal threshold that would require it to register, but did so out of a commitment to transparency.

Angus cited what he called the “sweetheart deal” given to Sidewalk Labs for the Quayside project, for which it won a Request for Proposals from Waterfront Toronto in October 2017. Kent shared Angus’ concern about Ottawa’s role in the development on Toronto’s waterfront. “I believe that a fix has been in with the Liberal government and Sidewalk Labs from the early days of 2016,” he said.

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The MPs are particularly concerned about meetings between Trudeau and then-Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt. The two spoke shortly after the Liberals won the 2015 election, and met again in November 2017 at Google’s GoNorth conference in Toronto. Alphabet’s subsidiaries have lobbied a combined 192 times since October 2015, 64 of which were Sidewalk Labs.

Keerthana Rang, associate director of communications for Sidewalk Labs, rejected the idea that its lobbying was inappropriate. “We have scrupulously adhered to every law and rule governing our interactions with government,” she said.

“The Silicon Valley data giants know that the Trudeau government is very susceptible to the arguments that they’re putting forward,” said Angus, “and these are not arguments that are in the interest of Canadians.”

In May, the government announced a digital charter, with principles including fair competition between tech companies and personal control over data. Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said the principles would guide future regulation. No new legislation will be introduced until after the next election, scheduled for October.

Asked to respond to Angus and Kent’s comments, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) referred The Logic to a statement provided by Bains’s office for the Monday story.

“It’s no surprise that Minister Bains and his team have regularly engaged with Canadians, businesses, and stakeholders, to help Canadian businesses grow, innovate and export,” reads the statement from Dani Keenan, press secretary to Bains.

Angus also echoed criticisms from cultural groups highlighted in Monday’s story that Netflix is not paying its fair share for the creation of Canadian content. “That hasn’t happened because we see [a] major amount of Netflix lobbying,” he said. Netflix lobbied the government 53 times under the Liberals, up from 31 under the Conservatives. The company rejected the idea it’s not paying its fair share, highlighting a 2017 commitment to invest a minimum of $500 million on film and TV production in Canada.

Lobbying commissioner Nancy Bélanger declined to comment on the increase in communications under the Liberals. “Lobbying is a legitimate activity that must be transparent and lobbyists are complying with the requirements by reporting their communications with designated public office holders,” said Manon Dion, senior communications adviser.

Kent said after Facebook’s experience, and under the “much more proactive” Bélanger, companies are being more careful about registering and reporting their lobbying. And, he said the increase in government relations activity in Ottawa may also be due to the conversations around data, privacy, and digital government on Parliament Hill: “There was a time, barely two years ago, that it was unthinkable for … any number of the big data companies that Canada would introduce the sorts of regulations that we’re now talking about.”