Canadians at risk of being 'data cows' absent big data strategy, documents show

OTTAWA – Artificial intelligence could give internet giants like Facebook and Amazon even more power to reshape the Canadian economy, threatening the viability of domestic businesses, researchers warn.

A December presentation to senior civil servants said that Canadian companies were losing ownership of – and access to – data to the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, requiring a federal policy response.

Artificial intelligence “will reinforce this trend,” presenters from the National Research Council warned top officials, adding that a national data strategy would be necessary to prevent Canada from becoming “a nation of 'data cows' for other countries.”

The presentation, among other documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, provides a window into the scale of the problem the Liberals are trying to tackle by crafting a national data strategy, and the breadth of departments involved in its creation.

The Liberals took another step toward the creation of the strategy by launching online and in-person consultations that will run through the summer in order to inform a final policy.

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said the government wants to hear voices beyond industry stakeholders before settling on any policy options.

“It’s fundamentally about saying, 'Look, you have a voice, you should participate,' because in the new economy, technology (is) practically touching every aspect of our lives,” Bains said.

“Data is such a key part of that. That's why it's important we understand it in a much broader sense and really engage Canadians throughout the process.”

The Liberals have been under pressure from business leaders and academics to swiftly craft a national strategy to harness the expanding power of the data-driven economy, and tackle the thorny issues of privacy and misuse that accompany talk of big data.

Complicating matters is the fact that the rules of the game are shifting with the pace of technological change: the large internet companies that hold vast amounts of data operate largely outside the reach of traditional government regulation and taxation.

Old-school regulations, such as minimum wage and corporate tax rules, tend to have less of an impact on online platforms, suggesting a non-traditional policy response is called for, deputy ministers at the December meeting were told.

Copyright laws were also flagged for restricting access to the data needed by companies to harness the power of artificial intelligence. Technologies like AI depend on vast amounts of high-quality data, as well as expertise to properly analyze it and make use of it.

The NRC also advocated for more spending on its own AI programs to help companies adopt and better utilize the technology.

Bains wouldn't say what might be a final strategy, or when it might be finalized, but said the Liberals were “open to all options.”

“This is a key part of the growth that we're seeing in the economy and we want to maintain that momentum going forward,” he said.

The pace of change and economic growth is only expected to increase with the deployment of faster 5G wireless networks, which could more easily and quickly carry large amounts of data to fuel AI.

A report commissioned by the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association suggests the national economy could grow by $40 billion by 2026 through the adoption of 5G technology.

The Accenture report released Tuesday estimates that some 154,000 jobs could be created between 2020 and 2026 for the 5G network build-out.

© 2018 The Canadian Press

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