CNet News Briefs
Monday, September 15, 1997

Thanks, but no thanks

Government can best develop the Internet by getting out of the way

by Mitchel Brown, mitchell@yahoo.ca

I really don't give politicians enough credit, so let me make amends by giving Industry Minister John Manley a hand for some common sense.

Last week, Manley addressed a crowd at Vancouver's SoftWorld '97. In his speech, he discussed the recently released report by the Information Highway Advisory Council, a government-appointed body set up to look at Canada's future on the Internet and how government should involve itself in promoting the Net.

"I believe the government of Canada has a role on the information highway", he said. "We are facilitators. We facilitate by making low-cost access available to Canadians in even the remotest parts of the country.... We facilitate and then get out of the way and let you do what you do best."

Facilitators. Not instigators, collaborators, regulators, administrators, or anything else. Facilitators. As in, "You keep doing what you do best, we'll keep doing what we do best, we'll help each other out once in a while, and life will carry on as usual."

Needless to say, this is far from what the council was hoping for. Basically, a major part of its report says this: Culture is good. Canada's great. And we need money to save them both from becoming roadkill on the global information highway. More specifically, in order to preserve and promote Canadian content on the Internet, the council believes the government should encourage (i.e. give money to) businesses to develop sites with Canadian content. And since French sites now account for only three to five per cent of Internet content, they should be given no less than a full one-third of any federal assistance rendered. Oh yes, and since the Internet is so important, the government should also place priority on (i.e., foot the bill) ensuring that everyone has equal access to it.

Rubbish. Granted, some of the report's recommendations make sense, and Manley says the government has already acted upon many of them. Encouraging homegrown, hi-tech talent and giving tax breaks to businesses that invest in the Net are reasonable and commendable goals. But the idea of getting the government to promote "Canadian culture" on the Internet is not just loopy, it's irrelevant. We don't need the government's help to encourage the Internet's growth in Canada any more than we need government talent scouts cruising Ottawa shopping centres looking for the next Alanis Morissette.

Let us put aside for the moment the argument about what constitutes "Canadian culture", since one man's cultural imperialism is another man's "Well, Pamela Lee was born in British Columbia". If the real issue here is promoting Canadian culture on the Net, then the question is this: Why? For one thing, if a company sees a profit in producing software products and Web sites for a Canadian audience, then it will do so because it's profitable, not because it's the patriotic thing to do. But more importantly, as far as the "information society" goes, we're already heading the pack. Per capitally speaking, Canadians are at the top of the heap in producing and viewing Internet content.

Choose your reasons why: competitive phone rates, a first-class communications infrastructure, better-than-average educational system, an already strong commitment to social equality. Whatever it was, Canada had it, and when the Internet came knocking, we reached out, grabbed it with both hands, dragged it inside, introduced it to the family, and never let go. There's already plenty of Canadian content out there because there are plenty of Canadians producing content, and the numbers show we're not slowing down.

Well, one may argue, that's all good and proper, but that still doesn't let the government off the hook. After all, it still has an obligation to protect Canadian interests on the Net. We can't become complacent and allow others to dictate what we see on the Net. To which the only proper response is, "Huh?"

The Net is not some major network sponsored by Microsoft, nor is it an American-spawned juggernaut out to assimilate us all until we're spelling it "center" and calling our friends "y'all". The Net is us, and them, and those other guys; it's everyone who is hooked up to it. And as far as we are concerned, us Canadians are out there creating sites and dominating chat rooms and doing quite nicely, not because the government is supporting us but because we want to and we have the tools to do it. We're free to develop our sites without government patronage and—inevitably—government intervention. Compare us to, say, China, which has only 100,000 Internet connections for a country of a billion people, and you can bet those 100,000 users aren't hanging out in the alt.discuss.tiananmen-square newsgroup and swapping theories on democratic reforms.

With all due respect, council members, the only real barriers to Intenet access in Canada are the ones that keep people away from a lot of the good things in life: poverty, illiteracy, censorship, ignorance. Let the government do what it can to fight those scourges, and Canadians will find the Net on their own. And as for Canadian content, well, Canadians are already creating lots of content. Are we to assume that, someday, someone should have the power to determine if a Canadian's "X-Files" fan page is not quite Canadian enough?

God, I hope not.

Copyright © 1997 by Rogers Multi-Media and CNET, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.