Re: The Digital Canada of Tomorrow.

Re: "The Digital Canada of Tomorrow." Liberal Party's platform, April 3, 2001, pages 18-19.

[Originally written for posting to a Telecommunities Canada (TC) discussion list]

I’ve seen some reminders in the media these days about emotional elections not being the time for rational discussion of “policy.” So I do concede that advancing a detailed analysis of danger zones in the Liberals’ plan for Canada’s digital future is, for the moment, hopeless. But, maybe for later on, when we all go back to the hard work of governing?

The Liberals’ “Digital Canada of Tomorrow” is more like the Digital Canada of Yesterday, a backward glance in its framing of issues that’s startlingly [conservative?]!

While their plan does clarify what they would do, and it’s better than what is in the Conservative’s Budget 2011 sections on the digital economy strategy, (and the NPD haven't said anything that I can find), it certainly isn’t exactly what we’d hope that they would do. To acknowledge the need for “putting the full power of information and action into citizens’ hands,” does demonstrate some understanding of the Internet’s role in social transformation - except that the Internet is already in everyone’s hands, and not as a gift from on high. The problem is to keep it there!

Consistent with and appropriate to TC’s message about community development, the “where’s the jobs” question for candidates that emerged from our recent discussion is community-oriented in its approaches to Internet as infrastructure:

We know our Internet infrastructure is outdated. That's a big problem for creating local jobs in communities. Prices too high; connections too slow; there are very few businesses that don't need cheap fast broadband. Recognizing this, many countries have crafted national strategies to create infrastructure that delivers 100 mbps everywhere. What will your party do about this issue?

Here are some of the ways I see their answer departing from the direction implied in that question:

1. It is significant that they recognize the responsibility to developing, “far-reaching plans for the digital society of the future.” But we’ve always called for an “open” process of developing any such plan. This platform statement is silent on the subject of drafting process.

2. They are still casting broadband access as merely a market failure problem of the private sector’s reluctance to push services to higher cost rural areas. While never denying that there is a significant problem of rural access to broadband, we’re defining the real broadband technical problem as “outdated infrastructure” for the entire national network. And we’ve encouraged community-based approaches (like municipal ownership of open networks) to addressing it.

3. While it’s a good thing to close “the Digital Divide” by working “with all partners to promote digital life skills and training, in particular for older Canadians and lower income families,” that statement is neither “digital inclusion” as we’ve defined it, nor is it an endorsement of CAP-like programming. If by “all partners” they meant social enterprise in local communities, I’d be comfortable with that. But, from past experience of Liberal telecommunications policy leaving back doors open for public-private partnerships with primary telecommunications carriers, I suspect that “all” really means all.

4. While I like the clear statement of net neutrality in the context of “the free flow of ideas,” I think I smell the BCE weasel clause constraining its application in the following:

Competition in a Healthy Business Environment that Rewards Innovation: Consumers deserve choices and carriers that invest heavily in the advanced services and infrastructure of tomorrow deserve the chance to earn a fair return.

What I hear in that is a John Manley-like guarantee to Canada’s prime communications carriers that the “market-based approach” to telecommunications regulation stays firmly entrenched. This is a promise that "they" will own "our" Internet as property. The ecology of Internet governance is not property.

5. “Open Government” begins with clear statements of government intention before the fact to allow for accountability after the fact, not just the provision of open data.

6. If I were an American and heard that a “government will make security a priority in Digital Canada” by “working to advance it with the private sector and other governments,” I’d reach for a gun. Instead, like a Canadian, I'll just write another memo, crumple it into a ball of apology and throw it at them. In the question of the security of the person online, the first line of defense is the autonomy of the individual in self-definition. First of all, it’s an identity question. Responsible citizens don’t let someone else tell their stories for them.

In conclusion, the awful question I’ve never been able to answer is still there. Does the peculiarly Canadian digital divide between the local and the national I’m describing above imply that Telecommunities Canada’s community-based challenge to national capacity to address the uses of the Internet for development is a bridge too far?