What do you want the internet to be?

January 18, 2001

There's a new Force in town, but it won't be playing on screens of your local cinema. Instead, it is developing strategies to bring your local cinema to you - and your school and your hospital, too. The new National Broadband Task Force, under the guidance of Industry Canada, will advise the federal government on how best to make high-speed broadband Internet services available to all Canadian communities by 2004. In effect, it will be telling the Government what you want the Internet to be.

High-speed broadband Internet service is the Concorde of the on-line world. If you can get to one of its take-off points and afford the fare, you can move from one point to another at lightning speed and in luxurious comfort. It's a crude analogy, but it's difficult to think of any single technology that appears ready to increase both the capacity and the speed of transactions by a factor of thousands almost overnight. Some people are calling it the Internet on steroids.

The Broadband Task Force is facing the onerous task of considering what Canadians need to take full advantage of such technology and what role governments should play in making that happen. The recently announced members of this 35-member Task Force include 22 members with corporate connections to the communications industry (yes, Nortel is among them...and Alcatel, Lucent, IBM, Rogers, and Bell). Only five members can be clearly identified with broad public interest issues such as universal access and privacy.

Where clear public costs and benefits are involved, some basic questions need to be asked, in addition to "What do you want the Internet to be?" Let's ask: "Is this technology providing equitable solutions for a diverse planet?" "and whose interest does this technology serve?"

One of the more immediate goals of the task force should be universal access for all Canadians, in their various roles as producers, consumers, educators, workers, homemakers, advocates, and students. The concept of access is multi-faceted, and includes not merely access to the technical infrastructure (the hardware and software), but access to the social infrastructure: literacy, diverse content, vibrant communities, and the ability to create and communicate, not just be the passive recipients.

Access also includes geographic availability--and in Canada this includes rural, remote and Northern communities. Universal usability is a key condition of access.

What we want the Internet to be

Over the past decade, we've gone from the Information Highway to the E-Com Bandwagon, and now to the Broadband Bonanza. As broadband connectivity starts to hit the mainstream, new concepts like "Gigabit Internet to the Home (GITH)" and "dark-fibre networks" will start seeping into the public consciousness, just as the "World Wide Web" did a few years ago. Some of these concepts have huge implications for our public and private lives.

According to Bill St. Arnaud, Senior Director of CANARIE (Canadian Network for the Advancement of Research, Industry and Education), "Customer-owned dark fibre is a basic infrastructure like roads and bridges. It is not a telecommunications service. But governments are starting to recognize that customer-owned dark fibre is a powerful economic enabler of new commercial services and will be as fundamental to the economic and social well-being of the community as publicly-owned roads and bridges have been in the past."

Customer-owned basic infrastructure? This is a major departure from the language of privatization and deregulation that has been associated with the communications industry for the past 10 years. It's not just science-fiction.

Do we want the Internet to be a patchwork quilt of self-regulated services implemented by various companies? Or do we want a vision that, while supporting provincial, municipal and other ventures, sets national goals and objectives and backs them up with policies and processes that speak to our desire to ensure equity and universality in communications, and to reflect our Canadian stories to ourselves and the world? Neutral carriers, such as those envisioned in public infrastructure discussions and projects now underway, are a major step in the right direction. But it isn't enough.

We want the Internet to be a means of public expression. That means more than fat pipes to carry e-commerce and pay-per-view videos. Public expression starts with public input into the design of the facility and into the public policy and processes that will give the initiative a "Canadian" character. And such public expression starts with meaningful public consultation that looks at the needs of diverse Canadian stakeholders, such as non-profit groups, the voluntary sector, the women's community, labour, public educators, and youth. Meaningful public consultation isn't just about sending an e-mail to a task force member. It's more in-depth than that, and involves face-to-face consultation.

Nonsense, you may say. We are talking about the Internet--that anarchic system that will revitalize democracy and ensure that every digital pot receives a digital chicken at least once a day. Don't count on it. There are few technologies that are so simple that anyone can pick them up and put them to use without any interference. A pencil comes to mind, as well as a hammer, and a needle and thread. The more sophisticated a technology, the more it has a propensity to enslave us.

What's that you said, Minister Tobin? That behind every powerful machine lies a powerful Canadian consumer? Okay, but why not take that extra step and make them powerful citizens? This is what we're saying, Minister Tobin.

Broadband for the people! And let a thousand web pages bloom!