What should the priorities be for a canadian digital foreign policy agenda?


Alexandra Cutean, Information and Communication Technology Council

Christopher Parsons, CitizenLab

Laura O’Brien, Access Now

Fen Hampson, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University (Moderator)

Key Issues

  • What is Canada’s digital foreign policy?
  • What strengths can the Government build upon to become a global leader in the digital economy, cybersecurity, and promotion of human rights?
  • What are the barriers to becoming a global leader in the digital domain?
  • Cohesion, transparency, and accountability through a comprehensive digital foreign policy.

Discussion Overview

In the new mandate letters issued following the 2021 election, Prime Minister Trudeau made it a priority for Canada to position itself as a global leader in the digital domain. This necessitates the examination of what Canada’s current digital foreign policy is, its strengths and weaknesses, and what steps the Government can take to become a global leader in cybersecurity, the global digital economy, and the promotion of digital human rights. The mandate letters, along with the Chairship of the Freedom Online Coalition, could be a turning point for Canadian digital foreign policy.

Discussions about Canadian-international affairs are often framed in terms of where Canada used to lead, but it is important to understand that coordination is now the name of the game. All governmental departments coordinate with international partners. It is not just limited to the foreign affairs department. This focus on coordination, however, slows down the progress that Canada can make to project itself as a leader on the global stage. Currently, Canada engages in many international and multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations (UN), G7, and the Freedom Online Coalition. Canada relies upon the international rules-based order in which it is a middle power. Recently, when the United States’ dedication to NATO was under question, Canada’s role in the world became more unclear.

Canada currently demonstrates strong leadership in focusing on human rights and advancing digital inclusion, both domestically and abroad. Canada’s feminist foreign policy and approach to digital inclusion are important lenses through which to view its international engagement, and are strengths to be built upon. For example, Canada has funded research on the gender dimensions of cybersecurity, and has advanced initiatives to end gender-based violence and harassment in the digital context at the UN and G7. Canada has also been very engaged in the ethical governance of AI, and expressed a consistent interest in media freedom and freedom of expression online. Governmental representatives have made recommendations to the U.N. Human Rights Council on ending internet shutdowns. There is also public recognition of the threat of surveillance, cyber intrusions and spyware, but Canada should be doing more to advance privacy to counter surveillance. However, the government and many of its allies are engaged in mass surveillance. These activities are in conflict with the protection of privacy, freedom of association, and the promotion of human rights.

The Canadian digital economy has fared well throughout the pandemic. There are many strengths that can be built upon in order to become a leader in the global digital economy. The further adoption of technology by businesses can help improve the domestic digital economy and, therefore, international competitiveness. Collaboration, through better trade deals for example, can help improve Canadian international competitiveness and help focus investments. Moreover, Canada’s talent base is a strength that can be built upon; Canada has numerous training and education centres and remains an attractive destination for international students and workers. Canada needs to work on capitalizing on its investments, particularly in research and development. A stronger, more cohesive commercialization policy would help Canada reach its aspirations of being a leader in the global digital economy. Moreover, the strategy needs to recognize that economic growth and environmental and social well-being cannot be separated anymore.

In addition to needing a more cohesive commercialization policy, it is currently difficult to decipher what Canada’s comprehensive national security policy is for cyber in the 21st century. While the Government of Canada pursues many activities in cyber and national security, there is no formal statement of its values, objectives, and what means the government is willing to pursue in order to achieve its goals; without such a statement, Canadian citizens, allies, and competitors will continue to be left in the dark about the entirety of the Government’s aims. There is also limited transparency, and therefore accountability, from the Canadian military and the Communications Security Establishment about their stance on engagement in cyber operations: increased transparency would enhance Canada’s ability to participate in leadership in the nascent field of international cyber law. Developing a framework for telecommunications equipment that is supportive of defensive information assurance operations, while allowing telecommunications carriers to protect themselves and their users as best as possible, would be an important tool for cyber and national security. The Government should bring academics, civil society and private industry together to help develop their policy and advance the security interests of the nation-state.

Key Insights

  • Canada has a lot of strengths in the digital economy, cybersecurity, and advancing digital human rights in international fora that can be built upon. Creating a more formal, comprehensive and cohesive digital foreign policy is necessary to increase transparency and accountability.
  • Capitalizing on Canada’s strengths in the digital economy, such as talent, and the increased investments in research and development through an industrial policy will help Canadian international competitiveness in the global digital economy.
  • The chairship of the Freedom Online Coalition is an opportunity for further leadership in the digital domain, and is a starting point for developing a stronger, more cohesive and transparent digital foreign policy.
  • The Government of Canada should be more forthright about where it stands on emerging international law to discipline its operations in cyberspace, on what its cohesive cyber policy is, and what the Government understands its actual capabilities and the implementation of them to be.