(Ottawa) Canada’s main research universities warn that the proposed foreign influence registry could have a perverse effect on international partnerships, which would cause Canada to lose great opportunities in cutting-edge sectors.

The “U15 Canada” group adds its voice to critics who urge MPs to adopt changes to this register, the centerpiece of Bill C-70 currently being studied by a House of Commons committee.

Committee members will have to begin the article-by-article examination of the vast bill – including possible amendments – on Monday after only a week of public hearings.

The bill would add new criminal provisions against “surreptitious or deceptive” conduct, allow the sharing of sensitive information with businesses and others outside of government, and establish a foreign influence registry to provide certainty transparency.

The bill recognizes that states and other foreign entities may engage in interference to advance political goals and may employ individuals to act on their behalf without disclosing those connections. To guard against such activities, the bill would require certain people to register with the federal government.

Failure to register an agreement or activity with a foreign principal – a power, entity, state or economic entity – could result in fines, even criminal sanctions and prison time.

In a written submission addressed to the Standing Committee on Public Security and National Security, which is studying the bill, the university group “U15 Canada” expresses its concerns regarding the reporting requirements that would be provided for by this register, taking into account the vast international networks cooperation in the research sector.

These major research universities are also calling for more clarity on how an agreement will be defined – and whether it would encompass research partnerships, funding agreements or other international research activities carried out with publicly funded universities , research establishments or foreign research funding organizations.

“The risk of a chilling effect on international research partnerships, an unintended consequence of the registry’s reporting requirements, could significantly harm relationships with international peers and mean that Canada misses an opportunity to cooperate on cutting-edge research and access expertise with peer countries.”

The group of universities would also like to know whether the publication or communication of research results, particularly through academic journals, teaching, conferences or other public forums, would be considered a communication activity to purposes of the law.

Such a requirement could “significantly undermine” academic freedom and “limit the pursuit of open science and the free exchange of ideas,” says U15 Canada.

For its part, the “Universities Canada” association, which represents 96 establishments across the country, affirms in its brief to the Commons committee that the transparency register could target information relating to a political or governmental process “which is communicated or disseminated by any means, including social media.”

“This may include research publications that address issues such as foreign policy, governance processes, economics, climate and technologies that are the subject of increased political debate,” explains Universities Canada.

Research publications already have transparency requirements, such as disclosing academic affiliation and financial conflicts of interest, the organization notes.

In another submission to the committee, the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) notes that the Canadian influence registry will be “neutral,” meaning it will not target recognized adversary states like China.

Canada is taking this path despite the problems Australia has encountered with this approach and despite another, more recent model proposed by the United Kingdom, indicates the brief written by security expert Wesley Wark, senior researcher at CIGI.

Mr Wark points out that the UK version is “two-tiered” and that the top tier gives the Secretary of State (or Minister) the power to require, where necessary, the registration of a wider range of activities for certain countries, regions or entities controlled by foreign governments.

In a brief addressed to the committee, Benjamin Fung, professor and Canada Research Chair at McGill University, expressed his support for this two-speed model. Such an approach would allow the Canadian government “to impose more specific restrictions on certain entities.”

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, for its part, believes that the article of the bill which creates the register “contains vague and general terms which raise questions of democratic accountability”.

The association is concerned about the potential use of the register as a tool for the government to monitor the international engagement of various actors, including state-owned or state-funded foreign broadcasters, academic institutions and charities.

“These considerations potentially involve issues of freedom of the press and protection of privacy, as well as questions relating to the place reserved for international organizations in the Canadian ecosystem,” argues the brief of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.