the backbone of a digital economy

Canada has a problem.

It’s a real threat to the country’s so-called digital economy, and certainly to its competitive advantage across sectors. It’s a problem that shouldn’t exist in a 21st century nation that commissioned a big fancy paper on Improving Canada’s Digital Advantage just nine months ago, and then poured significant grant money into furthering Canada’s edge – and knowledge – on all things digital.

It’s a problem of ignorance – and partially of corporate greed and short-sightedness. But it’s mostly a PR problem, people.

This digital sphere that most of us reading here are involved in? It’s participatory.

Digital innovation and connection and creativity occur in what Axel Bruns (2007) calls a produsage economy, one in which creativity and consumption are combined. I write posts, you read ’em. Vicey-versy. You make a YouTube video, I click the link on Twitter & leave a comment. You announce your start-up venture, consolidating info I think might be handy? I share that with 1400 followers. Or 12. or 63,000. The size of individual networks matters less than their interconnectedness, their capacity to intersect and create reciprocal audiences. It’s not broadcasting. It’s a messy, participatory, collaborative venture. One Canadians are pretty active in. Leaders, even, in areas like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) and other cutting-edge digital advantage activities.

These areas of digital advantage and engagement have the capacity to increase Canada’s economic and intellectual capital exponentially over the coming years, as the platforms and tools on which participation is built are becoming increasingly open and simple to use.

If Canada doesn’t go hide in the digital dark ages, that is.

Last week, the regulatory CRTC decided, essentially, to cap internet usage. Their decision will force independent ISPs to match the proposed usage and overage rates of the big incumbents like Bell. What this means, effectively, is that as of March 1st, unlimited internet packages in Ontario and Quebec will disappear. Instead, usage will be capped and overage – any usage above and beyond the proposed 25 GB per month in Ontario and 60 GB in Quebec – will come at a coupla dollars per GB. It’s called Usage-Based Billing (UBB). The rest of the country, it’s assumed, will follow suit.

In other words, thanks to Bell being allowed to buy up rather big bits of the publicly paid-for fibre optic cable across the country, they now have a stranglehold on our digital capacity. They’d like to charge for bandwidth usage, on a network already paid for by Canadians. And they have enough power to convince the CRTC to do so. Save the poor struggling cable giants! Ma Bell, my scritchy whiskers.

There’s no great surprise or drama in a large monopoly pushing to save its own interests in a capital economy. The surprise is in a government agency like the CTRC handing them the entire country’s digital advantage – the one the government pays such lovely lip service to wanting to foster – on a platter.

Or I wish it was a surprise. But after reading the Digital Economy consultation paper last spring, and working on one of the grants that came forward out of it, I’ve come to the conclusion that the majority of decision-makers in Ottawa truly, simply don’t get it. They don’t understand the digital. They don’t participate, and they neither understand nor respect the ways in which this participation is changing our culture.

The narratives of Bell and the CRTC suggest that only porn fetishists and illegal downloaders and online gamers – who, after all, are considered more or less on the same level as the porn people – will suffer under UBB.  Fair punishment, they sneer, for those nasty bandwidth hogs who’ve been using more than their fair share of our (ahem, publicly-paid-for but now-market-strangled) common resource.

The consultation paper on the Digital Economy released by MP Tony Clement on behalf of the Government of Canada last May stated, “Arguably, the backbone of the digital economy is a strong, globally competitive information and communications technology sector” (p. 5).

I think this is the problem behind the problem on all of our hands right now. Decision-makers still think that the information and communications technology (ICT) sector and technologies themselves are what’s driving the digital. They see our national competitive digital advantage as tied to a 2001-era view of the world. They don’t really get – or accept – that Twitter and Flickr and blogs and YouTube and Elluminate all involve the capacity to build and leverage both financial and social capital. They don’t see how industries like publishing and the arts increasingly demand participation because the old top-down models of promotions aren’t funded anymore. They don’t get – I hope, I really, really hope they don’t get – the ways in which education and small business and collaboration and connection are deeply tied in this country to the kind of free-flow exchange and participation that the unlimited-bandwidth model used by THE REST OF THE WORLD makes possible.

I don’t think they get that the digital is no longer the sole purview of the ICT sector, and hasn’t been for about, oh, seven years.

But it’s time they got the message. The UBB decision by the CRTC needs to be repealed, or all the consultation papers in the world won’t be able to drag Canada’s so-called digital advantage out from its dungeon.

We can use our digital advantage to address this PR problem, folks. We can try to explain to the government how the digital works. What it is. What they’re actually threatening by supporting MaBell, whom they seem to think of as the only backbone of the digital economy.

I think we’re part of that backbone. And we need to show some.

OpenMedia’s StopTheMeter campaign has over 228,000+ signatures already, and apparently caught the ear of the opposition parties yesterday. Participate. Lend your voice. Please.

9 Comments the backbone of a digital economy

  1. Sue Fisher

    And let’s not kid ourselves. This decision is the first step towards the loss of net neutrality. What comes next? Your ISP partners with Time/Warner or some other content provider to give you a special deal on just their content. Suddenly some digital information is less costly and ergo less equal than others.

    1. bon

      Sue, it makes me realize how naive i’ve been in thinking that net neutrality was essentially a finished conversation.

      it also makes me deeply, genuinely nervous, b/c while i understand that there are vested interests on which power coheres, here, this plan really does do all it can to retain a traditional economic model even while paying lip service to digital advantage, etc. watching this while watching the uprisings in Egypt at the same time – and recognizing how deeply embedded the US has been in propping up Mubarek for 30 years – i see the parallels and quake a bit at the exercise of protectionist power in both instances. (different stakes in terms of life and death, obviously).

  2. D'Arcy Norman

    Where it gets really messy is where the ISPs are using their demanded caps in order to protect other business they own. Is Bell really worried about bandwidth usage, or is it concerned that Netflix users won’t need to pay for as many TV channels? Or maybe they won’t be paying for as many video-on-demand and PPV programs. The big ISPs have essentially been handed monopolies in the regions they serve, and they are using that power to protect their other business interests. The Big ISPs are also trying to hit up services like Netflix and Google/YouTube to pay additional fees for bandwidth between the ISP and the server. They’re hitting anyone who access the network, and making all parties pay for the same network connection.

    And our governing body (CRTC) appears fine with that. Let the market decide! Nobody’s FORCING people to use the internet. Just shut your yap, sit in front of the TV, and let your jaw go slack as you watch this weekends Real Housewives of Calgary marathon on Slice…

    1. bon

      oooh, Real Housewives of Calgary?

      well, forget i said anything. who needs to create & contribute when i can just go back to the natural order of things and consume?

      got any candy?

  3. bon

    a little perspective on what these overage charges will really mean (never mind even beginning to factor in the environmental cost here, since this – i assume – is meant to be illustrative but facetious, rather than anybody’s idea of a real plan):

  4. maryakem

    Where we are at (in around BC) is that there are huge gaps in ICT ‘approach’ by users 1.0. 2.0 and 3.0.. and they don’t see free flow. They see proprietary as offering frame and structure.

    Rushing to constraint. #icantlook

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