A Canadian Election Programme for Digital Citizenship and Social Equity

Posted on September 14, 2015


The Internet and digital technologies have gone from exotic to commonplace in the blink of an eye. The Internet and digital technologies now provide the platform for much of the world’s economic, social, cultural and political activities.

The resulting transformations in the way we conventionally do things presents enormous risks as well as benefits–accelerating economic inequalities which appear to have partial roots in digital technology; the rise of digital surveillance and the “surveillance State”; the vulnerabilities built into remotely managed and controlled digital systems putting individuals and communities at continuing risk of catastrophic failures; all of this alongside unprecedented opportunities for increasing efficiencies in and universalizing access to information and to the means of production and distribution. and thus for realizing broadly based social equity.

At the heart of these developments and their risks is the inability of current systems of public accountability to allow citizens to determine the broad directions for their communities and their own rights and responsibilities in a digital age. Existing forms of democratic control and citizenship do not seem adequate to the task.

Rather there appears to be the need for a new form of citizenship, one which can renew the accountability of institutions of governance, of assigning the rights and responsibilities of individuals and communities in the context of this digital transformation—a form of digitally enabled citizenship adequate to the digital age—a ”digital citizenship” for short.

It is thus surprising how little attention has been paid to the Internet and the digital in Canada’s current election campaign. The only mention to date has been the Conservative’s dusting off previous funding commitments for broadband for rural and remote areas. The only extensive outside election-focused discussion of Internet based issues and policies is the useful but limited contribution from OpenMedia.ca.

In the following I want to lay out what hopefully may function as an initial program towards a “digital citizenship” — a form of digitally enabled and enhanced citizenship for the Internet age; and one which takes as its basic assumption the Internet’s transformational risks and opportunities. This is presented in the form of an election “platform” — a set of principles and policies which gives citizens a choice as to directions they may wish to follow.

1. Inclusive openness–openness of systems, institutions, information along with the attendant processes and supports for broad-based inclusive participation; and inclusiveness in participation and control over systems and institutions enabled by information openness to achieve the maximum of accountability;

2. Decentralized and distributed control towards the local and the community-based with means provided to support such initiatives;

3. Internet and the digital as a supporting and equalizing ‘playing field’ on which various social, political, economic and cultural activities can take place, both in collaborative and competitive modes;

4. Social and economic equity as ultimate goals for system enhancement and development

Towards a program for universal Canadian Digital Citizenship
1. Fundamental to achieving digital citizenship is access to the opportunity and means to use digital technologies–a commitment to ensuring the opportunity for full Internet access and use to all Canadians. There are now multiple means for delivering the Internet under the widest variety of physical and geographic conditions. There thus must be a formal commitment to ensuring for all Canadians a level of Internet access sufficient to ensure that the user can be a fully active citizen in the digital age. Such a commitment needs to include not simply physical access to the systems/the Internet but also the range of education, training, linguistic, disability and other supports required to ensure the opportunity for the effective use of the Internet and digital systems for the full range of activities which constitute active and effective digital citizenship.

2. Among the most significant strategies for providing high speed low cost access at the local level particularly in smaller and more remote communities is through community based initiatives in the self provision of broadband Internet access. Such initiatives should be encouraged and supported and recognized as a desirable option among the range of Internet delivery options.

3. Associated with this is the need to ensure that those who are the least able to undertake effective digital citizenship have access to facilities – Community Access and Innovation Hubs (CAIHs) where the devices, training and supports required for for digital citizenship are made locally available. The development of these facilities as technology access, training and community innovation and makerspace centres would be fundamental to universalizing digital citizenship in Canada. The network of these centres, in many locations in cooperation with local schools and post-secondary education facilities, would provide an important source of community innovation, a site for community based digital training and upgrading, and a training ground for student interns as support workers among others.

4. The Canadian telecommunications policy and regulatory environment needs clear direction away from corporate control of the fundamental elements of the Internet delivery system which is fundamental to the the effective exercise of digital citizenship and a digitally enhanced democracy. It is important that such notions as “net neutrality”; restrictions on cross media and more recently platform ownership and vertical integration; the need for diversity of content and local content requirements, become enacted in law and become the direction for regulatory interventions by the CRTC.

5. Canada’s small and medium sized business sector has been one of the slowest sectors (including among its peers in other OECD countries) in adopting and making effective use of digital technologies. The CAIH would act as a trainer, enabler and support for SME’s at the local level to get on board with digital technologies and provide the means through which the variety of supports currently available for digitally-enabled small business (including e and mCommerce) could be provided in an adapted and user appropriate form at the local level. This would be of particular benefit in rural, marginalized and more remote parts of Canada where such services and supports are not currently available and would bring the economic benefits of digital citizenship directly into all Canadian communities.

6. A key element in creating digital citizenship would be a national program of training in digital citizenship in the public schools through enhanced programs in digital literacy, teaching students how to use computing and the Internet to accomplish the range of their daily tasks and as well teaching them of the various risks involved in such use.

7. Canada’s Medicare program is a key component of Canadian citizenship. A national community-based digitally-enabled health and wellness program would go some way to providing support for primary health care particularly in rural and remote regions and among marginalized populations in urban areas

8. This national digital health and wellness program would have a particular focus on rethinking and re-planning health and wellness for our ageing population including how the variety of community and family focused Internet enabled technologies can support initiatives for the elderly and the provision of appropriate home care and associated support services. The training and support for this new program could be conducted through the CITH with close liaison with existing healthcare facilities.

9. Our institutions for the support of democratic governance have not evolved with the of digital technologies and the Internet. This is in part a cause of the “democratic deficit”. A national Internet based initiative is proposed to rethink and restructure democratic participation in governance including through the extension of Open Government information/data programs and as well a re-examination of the role and functioning of democratic representation in the age of digital citizenship. This would include an examination of how peer to peer processes could most effectively be included to enable enhanced digital citizen participation in policy development, policy analysis and policy evaluation.

10. Canada’s role in the rapidly evolving global Internet Governance ecology has atrophied dramatically in recent years. There is a need for a reformulation of Canada’s role and interventions in global Internet governance processes based on notions of national and global digital citizenship and social equity and including a belief in the need for an equitable distribution of the economic and other benefits of Internet technology and Internet commerce.

11. Privacy and surveillance have emerged as among the most significant policy issues of the digital age. Once Bill C: 51 has been abolished, there will be the need for a broad based Task Force review including the use of open participation processes for obtaining the knowledge and experience of experts and citizens on the appropriate balance between the need for privacy and the need for information access on the part of public authorities and the desire for access on the part of commercial entities.

12. Canadian technical assistance has been adrift for years. Programs to extend and enable digital citizenship globally with overseas partners could revitalize these activities and provide an important mission for Canada’s technical assistance contributions.

13. Canadian First Nations and indigenous peoples can gain immensely through full digital citizenship. Extra-ordinary efforts must be made to extend the opportunities for in the first instance Internet access and through this full digital citizenship to First nations and indigenous peoples building on existing successful models from indigenous communities.

14. It is being observed that the opportunities being presented by digital technologies are being differentially utilized by men and women. Extra-ordinary efforts are needed particularly in the primary and secondary school levels to ensure through training, mentoring, applied education that women and girls are equal Canadian digital citizens.

15. A small number of global Internet platforms are emerging as dominant even monopolistic, in the global Internet environment—Google, Amazon, Facebook and a small number of others. These platforms have enormous economic, social and cultural power and it is necessary to ensure that this power is not being used to in ways which materially impact on the rights and responsibilities of Canadian digital citizens. It is thus necessary to review Canada’s positions with respect to the range of emerging global Internet platforms to develop appropriate policy frameworks including in privacy, equitable tax distribution, ensuring of net neutrality both at the technical and at the content levels and as well to explore the existence of and support for local platforms for anchoring digital social, economic and cultural activity at the local, regional and national levels.

16. The Internet as the emerging social and cultural platform provides the opportunity either to enhance or suppress the range of languages. Efforts must be made to identify appropriate ways to enhance the opportunities for multiple languages and particularly for languages as the wellspring of local culture and identity to flourish in the digital environment.

Canadian policies and programs in the Internet and digital areas have for years been fragmented and without clear direction or priorities. The current Canadian government while promising a Digital Development Plan over several years in the end only produced a “talking points” document, ignoring issues of equity and distributed development while re-hashing long standing programs and commitments. The digital age deserves much better.
What is being proposed in the above is only the beginnings of an approach to the kind of comprehensive adaptation and development which will be necessary to ensure full digital citizenship for all Canadians and which ensures that Canada and all Canadians are fully benefiting from digital technologies while minimizing the associated risks. The above does not even attempt to address the very real risks of large scale under and unemployment which are emerging from “smart technologies”, Artificial Intelligence and robotics for example.

What is needed at the core of the Canadian government is an agency empowered to act in a comprehensive and integrative manner across departments and agencies to facilitate the adaptations and change required. Equally it is necessary that such an agency fully integrate into its operations the opportunities for the broadest base of participation by the public, local communities and the various technical and commercial stakeholders in the digital ecology. Finding ways of facilitating effective and inclusive participation in the policy and programme development activities of this Digital Development agencies may just be one of the most important and far reaching tasks that is to be accomplished.