Less consultation, more education

A consensus is building in Washington that ultra-fast broadband pays many economic, cultural and political dividends. A lot of politicians, policy wonks, lobbyists and advocates are talking themselves blue in the face about how best to spend the $7.2 billion ear-marked in Obama’s budget for the broadband stimulus program, and about how much more needs to be done. Btw, I’ve started my version of a blogroll to your right – and my hands-down winner for top spot is the Benton Foundation’s Communications-related Headlines. Free, comprehensive, public-spirited, edited with style and wit by Kevin Taglang – best place I know to follow the US broadband debates.

Meanwhile, back in Ottawa, the federal government set aside the princely sum of $225 million – over three years – to bring connectivity to rural and underserved areas. Paul Jay published a piece on cbc.ca whose title captures the problem nicely: “Budget lacks vision for broadband, critics say.”

The Liberal critic, the highly accomplished Marc Garneau, promised to “watch this government very carefully.” But even he couldn’t say “whether the $225 million over three years is significant enough to keep Canada connected.” If Marc Garneau thinks this budget item is anything more than a hopelessly inadequate gesture from a do-nothing government, he’d do well to read the 56 comments posted under the CBC’s report. Canadians are mad as hell and want to know why they’re getting screwed by their ISPs and why Canada looks like a banana republic in broadband land.

eConsultation. Which brings me to the CRTC. Last week it launched its eConsultation as part of its proceeding on Internet traffic management (Telecom Public Notice CRTC 2008-19). Public consultation on policy issues is challenging, to put it mildly. I worked as staff on a series of task forces that went from sea to shining sea to consult the public, including both the Applebaum-Hébert Cultural Committee (1980-82) and the Caplan-Sauvageau Task Force on Broadcasting Policy (1985-86). In the fall of 1980, the Applebaum-Hébert gang distributed 50,000 copies of a discussion guide entitled Speaking of our Culture. The committee subsequently received over 1,300 written briefs, then travelled to 18 centres, from Campbellton to Yellowknife, where we heard no less than 521 presentations, live and in person. I was recording secretary for about half of them and came home with the writer’s cramp to prove it.

That road trip was a huge, complex and expensive undertaking. We travelled in our own plane, something like a clapped-out DC-3 (it had propellers, which I recall we took turns pedalling). Fast forward to 2009. I’m a digital evangelist; how much do I love the idea of an econsultation? IMHO, a near-complete waste of time, in both principle and execution.

Not with that Web site. Most of the 4th-year Communication Studies majors who come through my classes don’t have a clue about what the CRTC does. In the last year, I’ve had dozens of students come to me, some on deadline and nearly reduced to tears, asking for help in finding public notices and other documents on the Commission’s Web site, which these days is undergoing a “Revitalization” – the goal of which is “to provide visitors with a more user-friendly experience.”

Not a chance. The Commission’s site continues to be one of the worst designed and least accessible sites I’ve ever used – or heard so many complaints about from other people. The homepage is a shambles, with three different nav bars competing for your attention, one across the top and one down each side. The information architecture is impenetrable, even with a site map. The geniuses who created this mess broke the first rule of good Web design: make sure your visitor can find her way back instantly to a spot she’s bookmarked. What happened instead was that dozens of documents we bookmarked two or three months ago got moved – without a redirect, so they all became orphans and we had to start looking for each of those pages from scratch.

Educate me. I’m a great believer in education – not just the formal kind but the public kind as well. Canadians need to learn a whole lot more about how things work. The CRTC should be in the education business, especially since we don’t have the equivalent of a Federal Trade Commission to look after consumer welfare in a meaningful way. Canadians vent their rage in online forums because they’re utterly mystified by the technologies they’ve come to depend on (Internet, cellphones, etc) and the way those technologies are regulated (or not). And the eConsultation is set up to polarize the debate about our online welfare even more, because when you translate the polite introduction – “the use of certain [ISP] practices has raised concerns” – what we’re really being asked is, Do you think you’re being screwed by your ISP?

I have a nagging question of my own about the eConsultation Privacy Policy, buried as usual at the bottom of the homepage, where humorless lawyers do some of their best work. I cite paragraph 4, Your Honour:

“Registered users making or responding to discussion forum postings or other types of submissions are solely responsible for the content. All information posted to this website by any registered participant is the property of Nanos Research and the client sponsoring the consultation.”

Let’s say I post a few choice paragraphs to a discussion thread. Then let’s say shit happens, like some reader feels libelled or robbed of their IP. Ha, go sue Ellis! On the other hand, let’s say subsequent to my posting, I use those same choice paragraphs in a speech at a conference. Busted, because I already handed Nanos and its client the copyright in my precious paragraphs? Tails you win, heads I lose? Am I over-thinking this?

The hell with digital media. It’s time for the CRTC to take a leaf from the FCC’s book, get on a plane, get out their ballpoints and go talk to Canadians in townhall meetings – from which lawyers and consultants should be banned.

4 thoughts on “Less consultation, more education

  1. Education – the eConsult website has a lot of terms and concepts that you would have to be familiar with ahead of time. Even the questions they are asking could not be answered if you do not have the proper background. My classmates and I have the advantage of having studies this stuff for about 6 months already, and we can ask David whenever we get stuck on something. I find it hard to believe that the ‘average Canadian’ who is called upon to participate on the site is going to put more than 1 (maybe 2) hours of research into the background and reality of this topic.

    Speaking of angry Canadians that just found out how they are being screwed in various ways by their service providers, eConsult asks: “What information should ISPs disclose regarding their Internet traffic management practices and how should they notify their customers?” !!! All information about policies and service, and somewhere easily accessible and understandable, because chances are that when you’re signing up for two years you won’t have a dictionary handy.

  2. I do have to agree with Ellis here. The CRTC’s website is hard to manoeuvre and does not provide an easy and surefire way of finding what you are looking for. Even using precise terms in their Search turns up a jumble of results, many of which are in no way helpful to what one is searching for. This is problematic to say the least and is what irritates me most about policy and policymakers. The average Canadian has no idea about any of this stuff and knows even less about where to find info on it.

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