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How to Unsuck Canada's Internet, and Other Tales from Up North at MESH

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, May 27 2011

A view of the CN Tower and the Toronto skyline, as you fly into the city. Photo by Micah L. Sifry

I've just come back from two days in Toronto attending and speaking at MESH, which bills itself as "Canada's web conference," a tagline that, judging from the big and enthusiastic crowd at the Allstream Centre, seems altogether merited. This was my second time at MESH, and it has doubled in size since 2009, when I was last there. The conference is the brain-child of five friends--Matthew Ingram, Stuart MacDonald, Rob Hyndman, Mark Evans and Mike McDerment--each of whom have day jobs in media, marketing, and law-related fields and who deftly manage to the weave the various threads of their personal interests and passions into a smart and engaging two day event. Plus, the food is great, and you're in Toronto, one of the funkier cities in North America.

Canada is at an interesting moment right now. The centrist Liberal Party, which has long dominated national politics, took a huge blow in this month's parliamentary elections, dropping from 77 seats to just 34. The Conservatives now have a governing majority of 166 seats, up from 143, which means that lots of proposed legislation that used to be snarled up in parliamentary maneuvering--including contentious questions about copyright, internet freedom, privacy and national security--are likely to actually pass. And the New Democratic Party, a progressive grouping that used to play third fiddle in the parliament, won a surprising number of seats (103, up from 37) and now is the official opposition party, with a surge of younger elected parliamentarians including several college students. And all of this is happening just as for social media goes mainstream--creating a mix of openings for activists and politicians alike, as well as a lot of consternation from older traditionalists in the government and media who wonder what is happening to decorum and gatekeeping.

Canada is home to some real standouts from the "personal democracy" perspective. The Citizen Lab, which does absolutely vital work supporting online dissident movements combatting oppressive regimes worldwide, is based here, and their founder and head researcher, Ron Diebert, gave a sobering keynote at MESH about the emergence of "Repression 2.0" as those regimes take the measure of the uprisings of the last year and recalibrate their repressive tactics in cyberspace. (Read Mark Surman, the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, who also keynoted at MESH this week. Surman told me that the city is the home to a significant portion of Mozilla's far-flung network of activist coders.

But not all is well up north when it comes to the politics of the internet. First, in ways that both mirror and differ from America's experience, the internet sucks here. Or, at least, so says Jesse Brown, a self-described "tech policy geek" who I've known for the last several years appearing on and listening to his Search Engine podcast. Brown led a breakout session at MESH called, not surprisingly, "How to Unsuck Canada's Internet." (The room was packed, even though it was scheduled up against a session on how the porn industry is innovating online.) Jesse kicked off the discussion with a depressing litany, delivered with his trademark snark:

  • Canada is ranked #32 out of 40 by the OECD when it comes to the price of broadband, and #28 out of 33 when it comes to the speed delivered.
  • Unlike many other countries, in Canada there are explicit bit caps on data usage, and the big internet service providers have fought hard for usage based billing despite the efforts of smaller independents to provide better service.
  • "We're sorry but the clip you selected is not available in Canada," is an all-too-familiar experience, as tons of popular services and programs from Hulu.com, Netflix, and Google Voice to Comedy Central videos are blocked online due to licensing problems. See this list for details.
  • There are no "fair use" provisions in copyright law for parody, meaning "we can't do what Jon Stewart" does."
  • Watching the meter on bandwidth use and an environment where you can't access many websites or mashup the news creates a depressing environment for start-ups.
  • Privacy online and freedom of speech protections are poor and about to get worse once the Conservatives pass their "Lawful Access" bill, which among other things will make linking to "hate sites" illegal, ban the use of pseudonyms online (and in the use of telegrams, how quaint!).
  • Online politicking is weak, Brown argued, noting that none of the major parties was interested in appealing to the "geek vote," even though half a million Canadians recently signed an online petition led by OpenMedia.ca against telecom price gouging.

The attitude of the major Canadian internet providers is also pretty complacent, Brown noted, since they have a sweet deal going. "If the Internet sucks in Canada," one unnamed cable service provider remarked to him, "then why are so many people using it?" Brown's suggested solution to the problems he described, delivered only half tongue-in-cheek: "We should become pirates. If we can't access legitimate services that we want to pay for, we should just take the stuff." He offered some prescriptions from other leading Canadian thinkers and activists:

  • David Eaves, open government expert: "We should prevent anyone who owns telecommunications infrastructure from owning content."
  • Cory Doctorow, internet freedom activist and BoingBoinger: "Any company that uses public rights of way without negotiating them at market rates should be subject to regulation that puts the public interest ahead of shareholder interest."
  • Michael Geist, Canada's leading free culture activist, who created a "Fair Copyright for Canada" Facebook group that numbered 100,000 members at its height: "Competition, competition, competition."

Right after Brown's session, Geist gave an equally compelling talk on the future of Canada's copyright fights, which have long been dominated by pressure from various trade groups, including the American content cartels. Geist warned that those fights are about to end, because the Conservative majority in parliament has the ability to finally enact a major revision of Canadian copyright law. While some aspects of the pending legislation, he said, were essentially just payoffs to various groups like photographers, librarians, and the like who need a clearer delineation of their rights, the coming law has one really awful provision: anti-circumvention rules that make any attempt to unlock digitally locked content into a crime.

Geist expressed some optimism that the course of the legislation might yet be changed, noting that in the past few years activists using social media have managed to mobilize in powerful new ways to affect the debate. He also suggested that the overarching narrative about Canada as a supposed "piracy haven," which has been promoted for years despite its lack of truth, is being challenged by a new narrative that argues that archaic Canadian laws and practices (i.e. the internet suckle) is stifling innovation and preventing the flowering of a strong start-up sector. It remains to be seen how this battle will play out, but it bears watching.

I wasn't in Canada long enough to really delve into how much politics is being changed by internet-powered mass participation, but did garner some impressions from participating in an hour-long discussion on "Wired Politics" with Steve Rankin Paikin on TVO's "The Agenda" program. I was on with two Canadian MPs, Tony Clement (Conservative) and Charlie Angus (NDP), the aforementioned Jesse Brown, and Wilf Dinnick, the founding editor and CEO of OpenFile, a journalism start-up.

We spent an inordinate amount of time--more than half the show it seemed--debating whether it was useful or proper for politicians to use Twitter. Clement, who has earned a reputation as Canada's most web-savvy politician in part for his interactive engagement with people on Twitter, was indeed the most comfortable with its use. Not surprising. But Angus, whose NDP has the most to gain from connecting with the hundreds of thousands of young people in Canada, surprised me with a fairly regressive attitude toward net culture. Usage of Twitter, he blurted, was "moronic," a statement that he tried to walk back by insisting he was just talking about politicians who tweet about what they had for breakfast. For someone who literally doesn't follow a single person on Twitter, Angus seemed particularly behind the curve for someone who the NDP puts forward as their lead on digital media policy and engagement.

That said, the "Your Agenda" show gave equal attention to the ways that social media have helped power movements for change around the world, and it was clear to all participating that a new set of cultural expectations were emerging among younger people who are growing up living in "the mesh." Yes, yours truly made that point. At MESH.

Here's the program if you want to watch the whole thing: