Report tackles big tech, personal data collection ahead of Canada’s competition policy review


A new report out of York University urges Canadians to consider the privacy of their personal data in the face of big tech domination and the lack of competition in that sector.

Professor Kean Birch, director of York’s new Institute for Technoscience and Society (ITS), is the author of the report Rethinking Canada’s Competition Policy in the Digital Economy, along with University of Ottawa doctoral candidate ‘Damola Adediji.

Kean Birch
Kean Birch

The report explores the global response to big tech’s intrusive reach into people’s lives, and considers competition policies to promote fairness in consumer pricing, ahead of Canada’s move to review and reform its competition policy. It will be submitted to Canada’s competition policy reform review.

The authors say Canadians should not only be worried about the dominance of big tech and the lack of competition, but the privacy of their personal data as well.

“Personal data has become an important asset in our growing digital economies with a small number of large digital firms, or big tech, increasingly controlling more of it. It can be used to develop new products, target us with advertising, and as a generator of future economic benefit,” says Birch, of York’s Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change and graduate program in Science and Technology Studies.

“The dominance of big tech firms, underpinned by their mass collection and use of our personal data, is an especially critical issue,” says Birch. “It gives these companies a huge competitive advantage in digital markets and when developing new algorithmic or artificial intelligence products and services.”

Controlling large data holdings creates “network effects” for large digital firms and reinforces their dominance in digital ecosystems. While this might help make their products or platforms more useful to consumers, it also works to their advantage by increasingly attracting more customers and users. “Big tech firms are able to lock in customers. This makes it increasingly difficult for new start-ups or smaller competitors to compete and to innovate,” says Birch.

The upshot is the dominance of big tech can lower competition leading to higher prices for consumers or other firms, such as advertisers and developers, but it can also have a range of direct and indirect societal harms, like the stifling of innovation.

Canadians are also concerned about rising internet and cell phone prices, as well as rising subscription fees to streaming services, such as Netflix.

The Rethinking Canada’s Competition Policy in the Digital Economy report is an analysis of international competition policy investigations, proposals and reforms – in English – covering various countries, jurisdictions and institutions around the globe. The goal is to learn from their experiences updating their competition policies to help Canadian policymakers reform Canada’s Competition Act, first introduced in 1985 with the last major amendment in 2009. Like Canada, many countries are looking to introduce new competition policies to deal with big tech’s hold on market power.

“Competition policy has become an increasingly important political and public issue in the last few years, not only in Canada, but around the world. There is increasing concern about the growth of monopolies and market concentration across the economy, but especially resulting from the rise of large digital technology firms which provide much of the digital infrastructure we now rely on to live our lives,” says Birch, whose research looks at how everything from an individual’s personality to  knowledge and personal data are being turned into assets by big digital technology firms.

“Canada’s current competition policy doesn’t properly address many of the social, political and economic impacts and problems emerging from the digital economy, and in particular the mass collection of personal data.”

Kean says the report was the focus of an international workshop in January, organized by the Centre for Internaional Governance Innovation (CIGI), and a report from CIGI is forthcoming.

Funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Partnership Engage grant, the report is the first published out of ITS and includes collaboration with people from: Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), a major Canadian think tank; Canadian Anti-Monopoly Project, a new Canadian think tank; University of Ottawa; McMaster University; and Vivic Research (a private consultancy firm).

ITS was created as a hub for critical and interdisciplinary research and knowledge mobilization on the relationship between technoscience and society. It aims to support researchers at York and build a Canadian network of researchers doing work in this field of study, and make connections with international research centres around the world.

Learn more at News @ York.