Who will really benefit from a digital strategy?


You probably haven’t heard about it, but, as you read this, the government is in the final days of its efforts to gather input from Canadians about the country’s digital future. At a major conference on May 10, with tiered levels of access to leaders in industry and government, Industry Minister Tony Clement announced a 60-day consultation on a digital economy strategy.

The consultation, which runs until July 9, will inform government policy around key issues, such as media ownership, Internet openness, broadband access, cell phone rates and competition, support for digital media production and much more. Clement’s choice to announce the consultation at an industry conference seems appropriate, considering the audience the process appears to be targeting.

What about society?

To frame and inform the consultation, the government produced a paper outlining the key issues it intends to address. The document is narrowly framed in the language of efficiency and competition, which speaks to the government’s approach to digital policy: the emphasis is on “maximizing reliance on market forces,” through protection of the “legitimate interests” of Internet service providers and other industry players. According to the government’s website, “it is business that must lead the charge and execute the game plan.”

There’s a reason and also now clear evidence as to why the government only began this consultation after getting its marching orders from a series of closed-door meetings with industry groups. It appears the government believes that what’s best for Canada’s business community, or rather big business, is best for Canada. Why else would it choose to call it a digital economy strategy rather than a digital society strategy? Does digital policy not have social or cultural implications?

Narrowing the public

The easiest way to figure out whom the government wants to hear from in this consultation is to look at the questions being asked. For example, one of the main questions participants are asked to respond to in the consultation is “What would a successful digital strategy look like for your firm or sector?” Another key question is “What would best position Canada as a destination of choice for venture capital and investments in global R&D and product mandates?”

Does the government expect average Canadians to answer these questions? Does it think these are the kinds of questions that will tap into Canadians’ passions, aspirations and ingenuity concerning digital media? Considering the way this consultation is framed and structured, it seems largely inconceivable that anyone would be surprised by the tepid response the consultation has garnered so far. Corralling input into a narrow, ideological framework with what appears to be pre-determined outcomes is hardly a way to inspire participation.

More of the same

We’ve been here before. In 2005, a Telecommunications Policy Review Panel (TPRP) was appointed to make recommendations on some of the same digital policies under consideration in the current consultation. The TPRP public consultation process was perhaps more inviting, but more for industry groups rather than citizens and public interest organizations.

Content analysis of the TPRP’s consultations’ submissions is revealing: aboriginal, consumer, women’s and community groups represented only 15.5 percent of the total submissions while industry groups accounted for 60.1 percent of submissions. The TPRP’s recommendations, which very much fall in line with the government’s current consultation framework, is at least party responsible for Canada falling behind other OECD countries in terms of Internet access, speed, cost and openness. Will we allow industry-centred digital policy to let us down again?

The policy being developed right now will change Canada forever. The government’s approach, which allows for minimal public involvement in this short consultation process, demonstrates the urgent need for a citizen-centred initiative to counter the government’s industry framed consultation.

Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media. He has written for The Tyee, Toronto Star, Epoch Times andAdbusters.

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