Canadian innovators are calling on Ottawa to design a national data strategy to ensure that ownership, control, cross-border data and information flows serve our economy.

By Benjamin Bergen | Published by The Vancouver Sun

Updated: May 15, 2019

Benjamin Bergen: Without a National Data Strategy, Canada’s Prosperity is at Risk

In the past decade, globalization and rapid technological development have fundamentally shifted the basic drivers of economic growth from the knowledge-based economy driven by intellectual property to the data-driven economy driven by data. Today, the most valuable companies in the world are data companies. This new economy presents new challenges but also opportunities for Canadian businesses, individuals and policy-makers.

Intangible, commodified data does not function like tangible goods. The data-driven economy gets its value from harvesting, identifying, commodifying and using data flows. Whoever controls data controls who and what interacts with it. Any data collected can be reprocessed and analyzed in new ways in the future that are unanticipated at the time of collection. This has implications for the economy but also for our security, personal autonomy, freedoms and democracy.

Innovators know that data flows have transformed commerce and made data the most valuable asset in today’s economy. Businesses use data to create as well as access new markets and interact globally with customers and suppliers. But control over data and networks allows dominant firms to hinder competition from emerging upstarts and to extract monopoly rents from their customers. This is why Canadian innovators have called on Ottawa to design a national data strategy to ensure that ownership, control, cross-border data and information flows serve our economy.

Among other features, a data strategy would codify a right to competitive access to data flowing through large data platforms that have de facto utility status. The collective ability to amass, control, own and commercialize data will determine our ability to provide social services, security and jobs. Canada has an opportunity to enshrine our regulatory principles, including data property rights, as part of the foundation of the global innovation economy and signal to Canadian businesses that our government is capable of governing in the modern tech-driven age. It would show that it knows how to help businesses reap the benefits of the new economy.

A potential market-based approach for government to use to strike a balance between data scalability, availability and privacy is a data trust ecosystem developed to protect the public and private interests. The guiding principles of data trust architecture should include the importance of data access, ownership, authenticity, security, as well as the rights, tracking, traceability, usage and value of derivative data. That is often more valuable that the original raw data. Further development of these principles should be done through consultation with domestic innovators.

The global economy is growing exponentially in multiple complementary dimensions: processor speeds, memory capacity, fixed and mobile broadband for both adoption and bit rates, e-commerce activity, sharing economy, internet-of-things units installed and data generated. Data assembled from ubiquitous sensors, coupled with ever more powerful AI and machine-learning engines and deployed through next generation 5G networks is transforming passive infrastructure into complex digital nervous systems.

The mutually reinforcing effects of these innovations are transforming societies and the global economy. Whether it is viewed as analogous to gold or oil, data must be recognized as a precious resource that is and will continue to be the principal capital input for the economy. This recognition needs to be reflected in Canada’s data strategy to ensure that Canadians own the data they produce and that governments and businesses are well-positioned to use it to grow our economy, protect privacy, promote the public interest and assert our sovereignty.

Benjamin Bergen is executive director of the Council of Canadian Innovators, a national business council that represents more than 100 of Canada’s fastest-growing technology companies. This op-ed series is a supporting part of SFU Public Square’s 2019 Community Summit: Confronting the Disinformation Age, running April 10 to 18.


This article was originally published by The Vancouver Sun on April 15, 2019.