OTTAWA — Defending and advancing a free, open and secure cyberspace is essential to Canada's prosperity as well as its commitment to human rights and democracy, advisers have told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The next several years will bring steady progress in the development of international frameworks for the digital realm, including Internet norms, agreements and governance arrangements, says a briefing note presented to Trudeau when he took office in November.
Repressive regimes want to harness communication networks to silence criticism, control information and limit access — threatening to undermine the open and connected nature of the Internet, warns the note obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
"There is a window in which Canada, drawing on its diplomatic strengths, could help preserve the openness, resiliency and security of cyberspace on which Canadians and people across the globe have come to rely."
The note stresses the role of the Internet — with three billion users, and another billion expected by 2017 — in driving economic growth and creating opportunities for social and democratic progress.
Canada is working closely with its Five Eyes partners — Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand — as well as Sweden, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the European Union and Mexico to sway emerging powers and other developing countries that have yet to take a firm stance on cyberspace issues, the note says.
At the same time, Trudeau's advisers caution, authoritarian regimes have resorted to censorship and repression in their own backyards, while lobbying internationally for greater regulation — or even United Nations control — of the Internet.
The note points out a new wrinkle: the next billion Internet users are expected to come from developing countries — many of whom perceive the online world as Western-dominated due to the Internet's U.S. origins.
Former U.S. spy contractor Edward Snowden's leaks, which revealed widespread U.S.-led surveillance of Internet communications, reinforced that "negative impression," the note says.
As a result, key emerging powers such as Brazil and India, as well as some traditional allies, have raised "serious doubts" about the state of the Internet.
"These states have diverse motives, ranging from concerns about online privacy, to the cost of broadband connectivity and access to critical technical resources, to wishing to see the Western technological advantage eroded for their own political and economic advantage."
Many civil society groups in Canada have also expressed grave reservations about Ottawa's role in global surveillance activities through the Five Eyes. They have vocally lobbied for laws that ensure police and spy services respect the online privacy of Canadians.
It is encouraging to see the government set a positive tone in the briefing note about online freedom, said Laura Tribe, a digital rights specialist with OpenMedia, a group that fights for an open, accessible Internet.
However, a "glaring omission" is the lack of discussion about online privacy, she added.
"There's really something to be said for the role that privacy plays in giving people that safe space," she said Friday.
In the international sphere, there is ample room for Canada to actively defend and promote its values related to cyberspace, the briefing note advises Trudeau.
This is especially critical since opposing states have been extremely adept at "forum-shopping" issues, pursuing their arguments in policy bodies in the hope of favourable outcomes, the advisers say.
"Canada will need a coherent and co-ordinated approach to match those efforts, bringing together the technical and policy dimensions in order to protect our foreign policy, security and economic objectives."
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Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press