Digitally divided: it’s not Ottawa’s problem (2)


A day late, a dollar short… The frickin site crashed yesterday, to the chagrin of untold thousands of frustrated visitors. In the meantime, I got an update from Stats Can (see previous post), and landed on a really snarky backlash to the recent NYT piece (Matt Richtel, May 29) – Wasting Time Is New Divide in Digital Era – in which poor people are portrayed as the real online time-wasters. I’ll get back to that after I finish with Ottawa’s digital sins.

“Even when you give poor people access to technology, they don’t know what to do with it! Might as well give a paleolithic tribe access to a chip fab, pffft.”

–Christopher Mims, MIT Technology Review, May 31

[continues from previous post]

3 – IC has excluded consumers from digital policy – except as workers and online shoppers 

Ever since Tony Clement, the previous Industry minister, began mooting a strategy for the digital economy, he left plenty of signs that he intended the beneficiaries to be his party’s business constituents. And that his approach had nothing to do with a broadband strategy. The distinction between a strategy for the digital economy and a digital strategy for everybody is not a trivial one. Two years ago, the Tories launched a public consultation process, dressed up with a 40-page backgrounder entitled “Improving Canada’s Digital Advantage” (uploaded here). I wrote a post shortly thereafter in which I laid out evidence of the government’s anti-consumer bias. To cite one small point:

“The digital consultation has tossed consumers over the brink, while lavishing its attention on the needs of business. Here’s a semantic clue: The consultation background paper uses the word investment over 70 times; it uses the word affordable exactly once.”

More recent developments have borne out my reaction. A month ago, Michael Geist wrote a blistering critique of Industry’s bizarre formulation of metrics for digital success, based on Treasury Board’s Reports on Plans and Priorities (RPP) for 2012–13 (this exercise accompanies publication of the government’s Main Estimates). The report of interest concerns Industry Canada. Michael begins by citing the following statement from the Planning Highlights section:

“Industry Canada will continue to implement measures in support of the Digital Economy Strategy to accelerate adoption of digital technologies, promote trust and confidence in the online marketplace and foster a globally competitive ICT sector based on a modern legislative framework, a robust digital infrastructure and a digitally skilled workforce.”

The initial problem is the reference to Canada’s Digital Economy Strategy. As Michael notes, there is no digital economy strategy. If the Tories have been sitting on one, that’s news to everyone else in the country.

(For the record, the consultation mentioned above ended almost two years ago, on July 13, 2010. What have the Industry mandarins been up to all this time? The answer may lie in a further online pronouncement: “Between May 10 and July 13, more than 2010 Canadian individuals and organizations registered to share their ideas and submissions.” More than 2,010. That’s impressive. But how many more – 2,019? 2053? By the time you subtract all the business and professional organizations, what you have left ain’t no consultation with the Canadian public.)

Speaking of shopping…

The rest of the IC passage above is just more hot air. A “modern legislative framework”? Even the CRTC, in an unusually bold pronouncement as part of its June 2009 new media decision, lamented the constraints placed on it by the Broadcasting Act:

“While the Commission’s focus on broadcasting in new media has been appropriate given its mandate under the Act, it is limited in scope compared to the wide range of issues resulting from developments in the digital age.” (Broadcasting Regulatory Policy CRTC 2009-329, para 76: my emphasis).

The Commission closes the new media decision by endorsing the “call by the NFB for the Government of Canada to develop a national digital strategy.” This is to say nothing of Commissioner Denton’s shrewd “concurring opinion,” which highlights the problem of outmoded legislation in headings like this one: “The Broadcasting Act hinders our understanding of the issues.” These comments were written exactly three years ago and the enabling statutes are if anything even more out-of-date now than they were then. Time to put up or shut up.

The IC comment also alludes to a “robust digital infrastructure” and a “digitally skilled workforce.” Our infrastructure for distributing Internet access may be “robust,” but, to say it for the umpteenth time, it’s also one of the slowest and most expensive in the developed world. As for a digitally skilled workforce, well, that’s one more clue the Tories are interested only in giving their business constituents a) workers who can help them make more money, and b) consumers who’ll perform well as shoppers – none of which has anything to do with the positive externalities enjoyed by end-users who have fast, affordable broadband in their homes.

“Completely clueless”

In his post, MG points us to a piece of the digital puzzle for which IC’s expected outcome is that “Canada’s radiocommunication and telecommunications infrastructure and online economy are governed by an effective policy and regulatory framework.” Sounds good, until you look at the performance indicators, as in the figure below grabbed from the IC Web page…

So this government will have an effective policy framework once we get 90% of our telecom “proposals” into international agreements – and 43% of Canadians over 16 are buying stuff online! We better hurry up and sign more WTO- and ITU-sanctioned treaties – like handing over governance of the Internet to the UN? (read e.g. what Vint Cerf has to say about that). But that idea looks ingenious compared to measuring success by getting Canadians to shop until we drop. As MG points out, this trickle-down theory of Internet happiness is both flawed in itself (we’ve pretty much hit these targets already); and is also only one metric among many that never get mentioned by IC.

“If anyone needed confirmation that the government, now led on this file by Industry Minister Christian Paradis, is completely clueless when it comes to the digital economy strategy, these targets provide it.”

Don’t count on the Tories to close the digital divide

Let’s get back to the folks who really matter here: those who a) feel they can’t afford to be on broadband and/or b) don’t see how the Internet could possibly be relevant in their lives. AKA the non-adopters.

     Oh yeah? Let them eat brioche!

For the first time I can remember, the CRTC pointed to a broadband policy failure in the second edition of Navigating Convergence (August 2011), a document intended to offer some background to the challenges faced by the Commission in the digital era. After the usual bullshit about our being “among the international leaders in broadband availability,” the authors confess that the prevailing Tory doctrine isn’t perfect: “Market forces have not been sufficient to extend affordable broadband access into all rural and remote parts of Canada” (s.2.4, Availability of broadband Internet).

In fact, the document goes one big, uncharacteristic step further, by allowing that this issue isn’t simply a matter of geography:

In addition to a digital divide between urban and rural and large and small communities, there is also a socio-economic divide. The gap between low-income and high-income households in terms of subscription rates for broadband services is more than 40 percent, as shown in Figure 17.

The Commission’s role in addressing this gap has been limited to ensuring that there is sufficient competition to discipline the market. Additional strategies to promote broadband access for lower-income Canadians could be addressed in a national digital strategy.

Here’s the chart (Fig.17) the cite refers to…

Fig.17 – Broadband subscription penetration for Canadians 18+ by household income, fall 2010

Let’s take a pass on the sufficient competition pipedream. A visual guesstimate would put the data at  ~55% penetration for households under $35,000 and ~95% for those over $150,000 – consistent with the 40% gap mentioned in the CRTC document. These numbers – based on data derived using the MTM Online Demographic Profiling Tool – are also consistent with the Stats Can data from the same period, which used a completely unrelated survey instrument and methodology. Notice the graph below measures online households, not individuals, which would account for some of the variance between the two measures…

Source: Statistics Canada, CIUS, fielded fall 2010

These differences notwithstanding, the point is that both datasets indicate Canada has a very serious social problem: a huge divide between low- and high-income Canadians in their ability to become part of the online world, with all its attendant economic, social and personal benefits. That in itself may not be surprising.

What is surprising – and reprehensible – is the utter indifference shown by the Harper government to the plight of millions of Canadians, many of whom are exactly those most in need of access to online resources in order to achieve a tolerable life. The Tories are too gutless to even acknowledge the problem exists, let alone do anything about it. Their approach avoidance isn’t even consistent with the party’s own free-market orientation: yes, there are big benefits to the economy as a whole as more citizens get online and use the resources available to them on a regular basis.

Now get this for a bitter irony. The passage I cited above suggests the government might want to solve this problem with the missing national digital strategy. That idea is expanded upon in footnote 74, which tries to inject a hopeful note:

Industry Canada provides a Community Access Program to give Canadians affordable access to the Internet in places such as schools, community centers and libraries. It provides access to those people who might not have computers or Internet access in their homes or workplaces. The program plays a role in bridging the digital divide.

Affordable access?! Say wha? We already cancelled that stupid program because we achieved all our goals! So we can go back to sleep and dream of a nation in which all the poor people have moved to the Sunbelt or whatever.