NAFTA change could limit digital freedom


by David Christopher

We’re just over four months into Donald Trump’s presidency and there’s already a great deal of concern around his digital agenda. On privacy, Trump’s Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has overseen a sharp spike in invasive digital devices searches at the border and is even threatening to force travellers to routinely hand over social media passwords.

Meanwhile, Ajit Pai, head of the Federal Communications Commission, is aiming to overturn critical consumer safeguards, namely Net Neutrality, that hundreds of millions of Internet users depend on.

And if that isn’t enough to keep you up at night, a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) now looks imminent. First implemented in 1994, this trade deal is huge for Canada and the wrangling over whether, and how, it should be updated is sure to dominate headlines.

From a digital rights perspective, a number of big concerns come along with a renegotiation of NAFTA. Canadians enjoy significantly stronger protections for privacy and Net Neutrality than their US counterparts, policies that could be placed at risk in the upcoming talks. We also enjoy a more flexible copyright system than our neighbours.

Recent US legislation dramatically weakened rules governing the privacy of Internet users, enabling ISPs to track and sell their subscribers’ information, including their browsing history. In Canada, we have much stronger rules to prevent such abuses. Professor Michael Geist has warned the US is likely to use the NAFTA talks to force Canada to match its approach.

Canada also has some of the strongest pro-consumer Net Neutrality safeguards in the world, recently reinforced by the CRTC’s landmark decision to ban telecom providers from engaging in discriminatory pricing practices. In contrast, the US, under Trump, is moving to rapidly dismantle its own Net Neutrality safeguards; again, the concern is that they’ll use NAFTA to force Canada in line with an agenda that prioritizes the narrow interests of US telecom giants over the broader interests of Canadian consumers.

Perhaps most troublingly, the US looks all-but-certain to use NAFTA to try to impose draconian new intellectual property rules on Canada. In fact, as professor Geist notes, the US’ starting position for NAFTA looks very similar to their stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This is especially worrying given the TPP proposed extending Canada’s copyright terms by 20 years, robbing our public domain and costing our economy hundreds of millions.

With so many fundamental issues on the table, it’s fair to say Canada’s overall ability to chart its own digital policy direction is now at stake. Over recent years, Canada’s digital direction has diverged significantly from that of the US and this divergence has unequivocally benefitted Canadian Internet users.

That’s why it’s essential Canada’s negotiating team not only push back against US demands on the specific policy areas outlined above, but also that it make clear Canada will continue to shape a digital policy agenda that works for Canadians and not allow itself to be forced into line with America’s anti-consumer approach.

At OpenMedia, we’re watching developments closely. You can stay in the loop at

David Christopher is Interim Communications and Campaigns Director for OpenMedia, a non-profit organization that works to keep the Internet open, affordable and surveillance-free.

Leave a comment