Rethinking Canada’s Competition Policy in the Digital Economy

Project Objectives

This is a SSHRC Engage Partnership entailing a collaboration between the Principal Investigator (PI) and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) as the Partner Organization, as well other academic and non-academic experts. The overall goal of the Partnership is to develop a policy and regulatory proposal for submission to Canada’s Federal Government as part of their recently announced review of the Competition Act. The objectives of the Partnership are:

  • Examine recent reviews and revisions of competition policies and laws undertaken around the world in response to the changing imperatives of the digital economy;
  • Analyse how personal data is treated in these recent reviews and revisions of competition policies and laws (e.g. as tradeable good, as an asset, etc.);
  • Develop a policy proposal for submission to the Federal Government review of the Competition Act.

Project Background

Canada’s competition policies and laws were established, in their current form, in 1985 with the Competition Act. The last major amendment was in 2009, following the global financial crisis. Notably, there has been no amendment to the Act in response to changing political-economic dynamics resulting from the impacts of the digital economy. The stated purposed of the Act:

“… is to maintain and encourage competition in Canada in order to promote the efficiency and adaptability of the Canadian economy, in order to expand opportunities for Canadian participation in world markets while at the same time recognizing the role of foreign competition in Canada, in order to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises have an equitable opportunity to participate in the Canadian economy and in order to provide consumers with competitive prices and product choices.”

Despite subsequent amendments, Canada’s competition policies and laws have largely stayed the same for close to 40 years. As such, they were developed for and are suited to another era and another political economy. They desperately need updating so that they can address the imperatives and implications of the digital economy, especially as this relates to the important role digital personal data plays as a key political-economic asset (see our work here for example). Many countries and jurisdictions around the world have been updating their competition policies and laws, but until recently Canada was doing next to nothing.

However, in February 2022 Canada’s Federal Government announced in an exclusive Toronto Star interview that they would undertake a broad review of the country’s Competition Act in response to growing public and policy debate about the need to change Canada’s competition policies and laws, emerging over the last 2-3 years. Some commentators have proposed doing nothing, while others have recommend taking significant action. The Federal Government’s proposed review follows this ongoing debate and a 2021 public consultation organized by Senator Howard Wetston, who called for submissions to comment on a report commissioned from Edward Iacobucci called Examining the Canadian Competition Act in the Digital Era.

Up to this point, much of the debate has been driven by the question of whether digital and algorithmic technologies are radically transforming our economy. For many commentators, the digital economy entails a range of new imperatives and implications that cannot be resolved with existing competition politics and laws. In particular, a 2022 intervention by Canada’s Competition Bureau notes the emergence of “digital giants” – or Big Tech – that “collect, broker, and benefit from this new wealth of data” and thereby have “obtained a high degree of influence across a wide range of economic activity”.

Project Activities

During this Partnership we are analysing the implications of the digital economy to markets and competition (and especially the importance of personal data). The Partnership is reviewing policy documents, legislation, court cases, and other materials dealing with changes or reforms to competition policies undertaken in other countries. We will add more information and resources in time.

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