Requiem for the regulators

Last week the CRTC, the government body that regulates radio, television and telecommunications in this country, got its hooks into Plenty of Fish, the Vancouver-based dating website, reeling in $48,000 in fines from the company under Canada’s new anti-spam legislation.

The law’s intent is supposedly the protection of consumers from unsolicited commercial messages. As is the function of a dating website, members of Plenty of Fish were receiving regular messages from fellow members. The problem, according to Canada’s regulator of digital candygrams? No prominent unsubscribe button. Surely, the Canadian government has rolled back the tides of injustice.

Canada is not alone in its apparent hostility to new technology. This week, the Guardian reported that Amazon, frustrated by an overly burdensome regulatory regime in the United States, has taken its delivery drone testing to British Columbia. Amazon is testing its flights in airspace that provides clearance from most buildings but keeps their birds well below the altitude of commercial aviation.

In Canada, and countries like it, innovative technology is outpacing regulation and leaving previously comfortable incumbents scrambling to address competitors. Uber has flipped the taxi industry on its roof. The service provides a better safety record, user experience and availability than the oft-unpleasant result that comes from a protected provider with little incentive to lower costs and improve service. Now that there is a threat, traditional taxi companies don’t look to compete in the marketplace but to regulate, legislate and ban.

If Canada were to build a national railway today, we’d be less worried about the last spike than driving the first. Red tape, redundant environmental assessments, treaty reinterpretations and any number of other statutory and litigious layers would threaten any ribbon of steel, line of pipe, or other channel of commerce proposed by industrious people looking to connect us to each other. Our national forebears carved a country out of the wilderness. Now, the government protects us from American content on Netflix.

The original promise of the Internet was freedom. It was to be a global network of connected people, communicating freely and trading openly. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Internet’s breakthrough as a popular phenomenon, we need to take notice of our drift toward what is perhaps the natural tendency of comfortable people to structure, define, and restrict — especially as it comes at the expense of our ability to create and compete in a world outside our borders that is experiencing its own period of rapid expansion.

There are now more people in the world who own a mobile device than own a toothbrush. According to the United Nations International Telecommunication Union, the number of individuals in developed nations with access to the Internet grew by 59% (366 million) in the past decade, while in developing nations that figure rose by 375% (1.53 billion). For many of these people, their first Internet experience has been on mobile and for many, email is not used as their primary identifier online, if at all.

Such companies as Twitter and Facebook have recognized this. Twitter has created an easily integrated module for any mobile application developer to verify new users while Facebook has invested $19 billion in Whatsapp, a messaging app. Verification for Twitter-enabled apps and Whatsapp are based off of an ID less disposable, more trustworthy and now even more ubiquitous than email: the mobile phone number. There’s no surprise that Whatsapp’s explosive growth happened mostly outside of North American and European borders.

For the developing world, Google is looking up — way up. It is looking far above Europe’s cookie regulatory regime that mandates users be warned about 1995 technology every time they visit a EU-based website, far above Canadian law mandating which TV channels are bundled and unbundled from television packages, and far above grounded U.S.-based Amazon drones.

Last year, Google quietly launched its Loon project. Through a series of networked weather balloons that autonomously adjust their altitude to catch global wind currents in the stratosphere, the Loon project aims to maintain a network of wireless Internet service for mobile devices. Where the development of communications infrastructure has been made impossible by corruption — traditional or regulatory — Google is aiming to build new channels of communication and commerce.

With smartphone prices plummeting in the developing world, the tools to transact in this marketplace are more and more widespread among the world’s population. Globalization and the liberalization of trade have already brought more people out of poverty than any other forces in human history. Now ubiquitous access to the next generation’s tools of commerce will bring even greater affluence and opportunity to these fast-growing parts of the world.

In Canada, and in much of the developed world, our regulatory culture risks overfishing. Will it be too late when we find that the fish have found warmer currents outside our still waters?

This article originally appeared in the April 2nd, 2015 edition of the National Post, published by Postmedia Network.

Let Ottawans use Uber if they wish

To conjure up the metaphor of the buggy-whip maker is to make a point about how the introduction of new technology to an industry has made old products obsolete. It has been used so often since the advent of the Internet and even more so with the ubiquity of today’s apps and smartphones, that it is now cliché.

But if I may, the story of the buggy-whip maker is perhaps no more apt than when discussing the introduction of Uber to the marketplace.

When was the last time you took a cab in Ottawa and thought, “well now, that was a pleasant experience”? From the late or forgotten pickups, to the way your driver looks at you sideways if you offer to pay with your credit card – as if it were the first time someone had ever tried something so preposterous – the Ottawa cab industry is due for a shakeup.

Ottawa residents may be surprised to discover that their city doesn’t have a competitive taxi marketplace. A monopoly exists in dispatch and most of the cab companies are owned by Coventry Connections. Were you offended by BlueLine’s service and opted for DJ’s instead? Sorry, they’re owned by the same parent company. Capital, West-way, and Airport taxi? Peel away your impression of competition, and instead you’ll find a cab cabal.

Of course, the City of Ottawa has an interest in protecting its revenue stream via its licensing system. The Uber model disrupts and easily supplants this antiquated and closed system. Yet, Mayor Jim Watson says the City of Ottawa will throw the book at Uber if it operates as an unlicensed taxi service in Ottawa.

Like all products and services that people want, Uber has been able to grow organically. As a result, the startup is now in over 45 countries and 200 cities worldwide. The “secret” to Uber’s success – and that of almost any technology company – has been to innovate in part of the marketplace that is poorly or inefficiently served. Just ask a travel agent – if you can find one nowadays – how the booking industry changed since grandma learned how to book her cruise with a “point and click.”

Today, Shopify is the darling of the Ottawa business community. It revolutionized e-commerce and helps small businesses reach new customers with easy-to-implement web storefronts.

Of course, companies who dismiss it all as a fad find themselves out of business quickly.

Imagine if traditional brick-and-mortar shops had turned away from adopting better ways to serve customers, to instead stop Shopify by regulating the company out of existence. “If only there were a law to shut down the Internet,” they might say.

For the rest of us who aren’t trying to alter reality, shouldn’t we be free to transact how we wish with companies that provide a superior service?

Uber is a boon for this town of government and professionals. Payment information is preloaded in the Uber app, so no need to pull out cash or credit. A receipt is automatically emailed for easy expense filing. For those concerned about transparency and accountability, receipts provide not only the cost of the trip, but a map from origin to destination.

Virtually everyone that tries Uber is both surprised about the positive difference it provides compared to traditional cabs, and also that such a service had not already been invented. Let the people of Ottawa be free to choose their ride. Indeed, Jim Watson can continue to trudge along in his BlueLine buggy, but for the sake of the rest of us, it’s time to retire the whip.

This article originally appeared in the October 9th, 2014 edition of the Ottawa Citizen, published by Postmedia Network.

New Government leader in the Senate to be an elected one?

Earlier this month, Mulroney appointee and Harper lieutenant Marjorie LeBreton announced her retirement as Government leader in the Senate. LeBreton, who is 73, will retire from the Senate in two years.

LeBreton has held the government’s line in the Senate through its problems this year; Senator Brazeau is up on sexual assault charges, while he and three other Senators are facing RCMP investigation over allowance expense irregularities.

A government official speaking about LeBreton’s retirement said, “A fully elected cabinet is an important thing right now”. This was taken by most of Ottawa to mean a deprioritization of the Senate as an institution in the executive branch of government.

However, it could also slyly mean that the Prime Minister will appoint an elected Senator to cabinet to be the government’s voice in the Upper Chamber.

Candidates for this position in cabinet include:

  • Scott Tannas
  • Betty Unger
  • Doug Black

Cabinet shuffle pre-shuffle information

There’s been a lot of speculation in Ottawa this week about the imminent cabinet shuffle as a number of ministers have announced their retirement from federal politics. Here’s what we know.

Shuffle date:
We’re hearing that the shuffle is now scheduled for tomorrow (Monday)

Who is out:
Confirmed retirements: Toews (Public Safety), Ablonczy (DFATD, Consular affairs), Menzies (Associate minister of finance), Ashfield (Fisheries, ACOA)

Likely retirements: Kent (Environment), Ritz (Agriculture), O’Connor (Whip)

With O’Connor retiring, we’ve independently confirmed that Pierre Poilievre is getting the promotion and will sit as the other National Capital Region minister in cabinet with John Baird.

I’ve also heard that MacKay will be shuffled in a one-for-one swap where his legal skills will be of use (likely Justice). This was a shuffle certainty a while ago but this might have changed since.

With Ashfield out, Rob Moore is his likely (but unconfirmed) replacement.

Nobody expects Jim Flaherty to be shuffled out of Finance as his intention is to balance the budget by the next election.

We’re told the Prime Minister had fireside chats with members of his cabinet and from caucus to discuss their future plans. Older ministers who are retiring have been asked to step aside for new blood. Older ministers who have not indicated an intention to retire may have been asked to do the same (Kent). The only exception to this might be Flaherty and Oliver (both are in critically important political files at key junction points — Flaherty and budget balance and Oliver on the KXL decision).

One of my sources on the cabinet shuffle told me to expect a lot of new faces in cabinet.

Shelly Glover has been spotted in Ottawa today. She is a Manitoba MP who many observers speculate will be occupying a chair at Prime Minister Harper’s cabinet table.

I will update this post as I learn more.

Andrew Ference heads to the Edmonton Oilers

The former unrestricted free agent and former Boston Bruin Andrew Ference has signed with the Edmonton Oilers.

Ference has been a prominent celebrity voice that has spoken out against the Alberta oilsands located north of Edmonton.

On the eve of President Obama’s first foreign visit to Canada, a group of over 50 prominent Canadians have signed an open letter telling Obama that the tar sands don’t fit in the new energy economy.
 
“In your discussions with the Canadian government, we encourage you to raise concerns over the environmental and social problems associated with tar sands production and make no exemption for the tar sands in any binational agreement addressing climate change” says the open letter.
 
Actress Neve Campbell, authors Ann-Marie MacDonald and Farley Mowat, musicians Anton Kuerti and Jim Creeggan of the Barenaked Ladies, athletes Adam Kreek (Olympic Gold Medalist) and Andrew Ference (Boston Bruins defenceman), and political leaders Jack Layton of the NDP and Elizabeth May of the Green Party, are just a few of the many prominent Canadians to sign the letter.

It is unclear if Mr. Ference’s views on Alberta’s resource sector will change now that Oiler ticket holders — many who work in oil and gas — will be paying his salary.

Or will Ference insist he plays for the Edmonton Tarsanders?

HuffPo shows its cards

Here’s the latest leftwing click-bait from the Huffington Post on offer today,

Stephen Harper’s Wireless Petition Probably Just Trolling For Your Personal Data

Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants you to know he’s on your side in the epic battle of consumers against Big Telecom’s big wireless bills.
 
Or maybe it’s the Conservative Party trying to get your name and email address, so they can spam you with political ads.
 
Either way, a post appeared on Harper’s Facebook page Wednesday linking to a Conservative Party petition called “Standing Up For Wireless Consumers.”
 
The Facebook post urges people to “sign the petition if you believe Canadians will benefit from more choice and greater competition among wireless providers.”

Oh, is that so? Here’s Marc Garneau’s Liberal Party data-collection petition on Usage Based Billing. Huffington Post stories about the Liberal Party’s creepy data collection efforts? 0.

And here’s an NDP petition (data collection website) against extra fees on cellphone bills. Huffington Post cynicism about political outreach by the NDP? Non-existent.

I tried to find a Green Party petition on wireless usage, but my wifi signal gave out.

Here, Huffington Post writes about Avaaz’s data-collection website for collecting the email addresses of Sun News haters. As a cynical news story about the political process of issue identification and data collection? No! It was written as a news story about the critiques of Sun News.

There is a trend among Ottawa journalists to write about the political processes as if they were recently unearthed from some dank pit from behind Karl Rove’s creepy house (the one with the unhinged screen door that has the tear). These tried-and-true political tactics are repackaged to ignorant readers in an alarm-raising tone.

BREAKING NEWS! Did you know that Conservatives do GOTV?

BREAKING NEWS! Did you know that Conservatives keep a database of their supporters?

BREAKING NEWS! Did you know that Conservatives call people to identify their levels of support?

BREAKING NEWS! Conservatives use American-style robocalls!

BREAKING NEWS! Did you know that Conservatives use social advertising on segments to test messaging?

BREAKING NEWS! Did you know that Conservatives use petitions to do issue identification?

BREAKING NEWS! Any political party that hopes to win an election in the modern era will do all of the above.

BREAKING NEWS! Obama does it too? Well, nevermind then. He’s doing the best he can.

This town is sick

In the news todaya taxpayer-funded CBC panelist, HuffPo journalist, and Trudeau biographer,

with notes from a taxpayer-funded partisan Liberal research bureau,

writes a story about taxpayer-funded Conservative partisans,

on direction from the taxpayer-funded Prime Minister’s Office,

protesting this previously alluded-to taxpayer-funded politician,

on his transparency pledge that omits his private business which raised money from taxpayer-funded charities.

The protest was done in order to change the channel on this taxpayer-funded politician’s taxpayer-funded housing allowance,

though another taxpayer-cheating Senator,

may be welcome back in a tax-exempt political party that issues 75% tax deductions on amounts donated,

to direct taxpayer-funded partisans to protest, like they did against this taxpayer-funded politician,

who once cheekily posed with taxpayer-funded partisans,

protesting a tax on everything.

Bob Rae resigns, who will replace him in Toronto Centre?

Yesterday, Bob Rae resigned from the House of Commons, giving up his Toronto Centre seat. The seat has been a safe Liberal seat for quite some time and the Liberal nomination race to replace him will be a competitive one.

Here are some of the Liberal names that I’m hearing that may be running for the Liberal nomination:
– George Smitherman, former mayoral candidate and former Ontario cabinet minister
– Seamus O’Reagan, of CTV’s Canada AM (via the Globe and Mail), close friend of Justin Trudeau
– John Duffy, former Liberal strategist, current lobbyist

The NDP could give the Liberals a good run. They’ll likely put forward a viable candidate. Potential names include:
– Jennifer Hollett (via Xtra), former Much Music VJ and CBC journalist, presented at the NDP convention
– Cathy Crowe, former candidate in 2010 by-election
– Kristyn Wong-Tam, city councillor

Potential Conservative nomination contestants:
– Andrew Keyes, former candidate
– Kevin Moore, former candidate

Dave Rutherford to run for mayor of Calgary?

Will popular former radio take on Naheed Nenshi this fall in the Calgary mayoral election? Former Stephen Harper and Christy Clark advisor Ken Boessenkool has some advice for Dave if he’s seriously thinking about it,

What do you think of Ken’s advice? Do you think Rutherford should challenge Nenshi in the fall?