Archive for the ‘government’ Category

Canadian broadband: the time for complaining is over

November 11, 2011 15 comments

I had to take a deep breath before writing today’s post, mostly to get all the four-letter words and other obscenities out of my system. There are few things that make me as angry as Canada’s abject failure on broadband issues, a situation that was highlighted again on Wednesday by our neighbours to the south and their creation of a plan to get high-speed internet to the poorest Americans.

If you missed the news, the Federal Communications Commission introduced a plan that will give households in the National Student Lunch Program access to broadband for $9.99 a month. Moreover, the FCC’s Connect 2 Compete program will also get these families access to inexpensive computers ranging from $150 to $250, plus training on how to use them and the internet. This is far from just a government initiative, though - the broadband part is coming through a partnership with cable companies such as Comcast, with the likes of Microsoft and Best Buy providing the other stuff.

It’s probably hard for anyone reading this (on the web) to imagine what life would be like without the internet, but for those millions of Americans, it’s reality. That’s why, for the most part, the FCC’s plan is being lauded. Lefty types like it for obvious reasons while the righties like it too because it targets those 5.5 million homes that don’t - and most likely can’t - subscribe to broadband anyway. The plan doesn’t take money out of internet providers’ pockets and it stands to add millions of people to what was once considered the economy of the future, but what is in reality the economy of the now.

Here in Canada, we can only look on in envy - and anger, because our situation is similar. Canada has an estimated 500,000 households that can’t afford broadband, which is not necessarily a case of whether telecom companies are charging too much for the service, but rather a simple fact of poverty. The Canadian government’s record in all things broadband, meanwhile, is dismal, particularly in comparison with our G8 partners. Along with the U.S., every other country that counts has taken definitive steps to get all of its citizens connected:

Japan: Not surprisingly, Japan is the world’s most advanced internet nation, with the cheapest and fastest broadband available (only South Korea comes close). It all started with the e-Japan plan, a strategy unveiled way back in 2001… you know, when Canada was still a world broadband leader. Looking at that link, which goes to the government’s e-Japan website, is a lesson in irony given how absolutely ancient it looks by today’s standards.

France: The French government launched its France Numerique plan back in 2008 with an aim to making the country a leader in the digital space by 2012. The comprehensive plan tackled everything from getting universal access to broadband by 2012 to better video game production. While France is getting close to assessing how well it has done, Canada hasn’t even gotten in on the ground floor.

Germany: The Germans have aimed high with their broadband plan, announced in 2009. The first phase looks to get 75% of the country speeds of 50 megabits by 2014 while the next phase aims for 100 megabits to 50% and 50 megabits to another 30% by 2020. It’s an ambitious goal, but it’s always good to shoot high because if you fall short, you’re usually still miles ahead of where you started.

Italy: The Italian government also detailed its broadband strategy in 2009, with a plan to get universal connections speeds of 2 megabits by 2012 and 20 megabits by 2020. Work continues apace, with the government leading and organizing industry to implement the plan.

United Kingdom: The UK’s plan of getting every home a connection of at least 2 megabits per second by 2015 isn’t exactly ambitious, but it’s still better than what Canada has, which is diddly squat.

Russia: The good news is the Canadian government is not alone in the G8 in being asleep at the broadband wheel. The bad news is, it’s joined by Russia, which has apparently done about as much - the government has talked a bunch about broadband, but otherwise initiated nothing. Simply put, there’s really no level on which Canada wants to be compared to Russia.

Depressing, isn’t it? And that’s just the G8, never mind what’s going on in other European and Asian countries, plus Australia and New Zealand, where governments are actively spending billions of dollars in overseeing the construction of next-generation networks that will, with any luck, be accessible by all of their citizens. A quick read of this Wikipedia page or the OECD’s overview is enough to bring any Canadian who cares about the future of their country to tears.

In the end, we can only complain about this for so long. Blaming the government or telecom companies for holding back or doing nothing about Canada’s digital development clearly isn’t getting us anywhere - it’s obvious both have failed the country - which is why people from across the spectrum are starting to speak up and/or taking action. Greg O’Brien, editor of telecom and broadcast news site, has an excellent overview of the issue.

As he points out, solving this problem starts with getting computers to those who need them most. Renewed Computer Technology is a non-profit charity that specializes in taking used corporate machines, wiping them clean and then redistributing them to schools, libraries and others who need them. If you or your company has computers that need to be disposed, check with this organization to see if they can be put to use.

Similarly, telecom consultant Mark Goldberg is trying to organize a “One Million Computers” movement that seeks to address the same issues. While Mark and I disagree on many things, this isn’t one of them. All Canadians should have a computer and have internet access, period. If you think you might be able to help or have any ideas, feel to contact him or me through our respective websites.

The broadband side of things is trickier to solve. The answer, when industry and government is failing the people, may lie in the people bringing things closer to home, as the recent fight in Longmont, Colorado illustrated. The town of 80,000 was tired of getting substandard service from ISPs, so it held a referendum and - despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying by Comcast and other opponents - succeeded in getting the right to build its own fibre network. How it goes from here remains to be seen, but it’s an inspirational win for fans of democracy (and who isn’t one?).

If this issue does bother you, get on the phone to your MP, MPP or local councilor and urge others to do the same. Let them know that Canada can’t afford to be left behind.

Is this sort of local engagement the future of broadband development? Will internet access boil down to people doing it for themselves? Unfortunately in Canada, it’s sure looking that way.

Categories: government, internet

Digital locks are bad for consumers and innovation

October 3, 2011 9 comments

As expected, the federal government on Thursday introduced new copyright legislation. Bill C-11 is an exact duplicate of Bill C-32, which fell into limbo with the calling of the election earlier this year. C-32 was in the process of being discussed and dissected through parliamentary hearings and C-11 will pick up where its predecessor left off, with the final law likely to be passed by the end of the year.

As with the prior legislation, C-11 still contains a major flaw: the anti-circumvention clause. In plain English, should the bill become law as is, it will become illegal for Canadians to break a digital lock placed on any content or devices. This is bad in two ways.

It’s bad news for consumers because it opens the door to a number of scenarios. If a record label such as Sony, for example, decides it doesn’t want people copying its CDs onto their computers and iPods, it can lock such discs down so it can’t be done. Anyone cracking such a lock would be breaking the law. Similarly, if a television producer such as Disney or broadcaster such as CTV decided it didn’t want viewers using their PVRs to record Desperate Housewives or other programs, they could insert code into the broadcast that could do just that. If someone actually figured out how to crack the code, they’d be on the wrong side of the law.

The same goes for gadgets. If consumers were to modify their iPad or Xbox for whatever reason, they would not only void the warranty (as is currently the case), they’d also open themselves up for legal action from Apple or Microsoft, or whoever. As individuals such as Russell McOrmond have suggested, this situation - of non-owner locks being placed on property - is patently wrong. McOrmond has long argued that no individual would accept some company having the keys to a house that they bought and paid for, so why should it be any different for a gadget? It’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s hard to see the flaw with that logic.

In a nutshell, Bill C-11 could criminalize common practices that most people have been engaging in for years.

The argument against any of that happening - a clawing back of the digital rights consumers have naturally accumulated over the years - is that market forces will prevent it. If Apple, for example, were to start suing any Canadians who cracked their iPads, then its competitors - those that opted not to litigate against their customers - would steal its customers.

That position assumes a fully functioning market but in Canada, where very few digital products and services are truly competitive for one reason or another, the opposite is more likely. With just about all these markets touching the closed telecommunications business, it’s more likely that market players will follow each others’ leads: if one sues customers, the rest will follow. Before you know it, copying CDs or recording TV shows are illegal in Canada.

The other way in which the anti-circumvention clause is bad is that it’s anti-innovation. Indeed, it goes against the very notion of how science works.

Sir Isaac Newton famously said, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” C-11, however, will require innovators to stand way down at the giants’ feet - literally. Inventors and innovators often need to take things apart to see how they work in order to improve on them and create their own new doohickeys. If the law is passed as is, that’ll be illegal.

The result here is easy to predict - as if the world doesn’t already have enough patent lawsuits, the new law is only going to fuel that fire. Besides the “you-stole-our-technology-no-we-didn’t-you-stole-ours” back-and forth currently going on between major tech players, Canada will add an extra layer of, “and-you-cracked-our-locks-too” to that ridiculous game.

That may not deter the mega-big companies who are currently locked in patent armageddon, but it sure will put a chill on smaller inventors. Who’s going to want to try and build a better mouse trap with all of that looming large?

There is still the possibility the government will acquiesce to what just about everyone besides big entertainment and technologies want, which is to introduce an exception to the anti-circumvention clause that would make it okay to crack locks so long as it’s for personal and not commercial use. The government has also left itself the potential for a backdoor by reserving the right to create regulations that would then generate exceptions; it could rule that breaking a lock is okay for news reporting or parody purposes, for example.

It’s possible the government is trying to play both sides against the middle here - the strict anti-circumvention clause is meant to appease the entertainment and technology lobby, while the exceptions can be enacted later through regulation. If that’s the case, it could be seen as a prudent and pragmatic move.

It could, however, also be seen as foolish. As an old saying goes, it’s usually wiser to prevent a wound in the first place because that saves having to apply the bandage later on. Just ask Wind Mobile. Rather than lifting foreign ownership restrictions, which would have allowed the new wireless carrier clear sailing, the government instead patched a band-aid on that situation, a move it now finds itself fighting in the Supreme Court.

Is it wise to tick off the public and potentially spark similar court battles, all for the sake of making a few companies happy? It sure doesn’t seem logical, does it?

Categories: copyright, government

Governments must adapt to internet, not other way around

August 10, 2011 5 comments

When the Cold War ended just over twenty years ago, it was convenient to think of it as democracy’s final triumph over tyranny, autocracy and every other form of government. With communism defeated, it seemed pretty obvious that the system left standing was the best one - the one we were always destined for and the one that every country should strive for.

It would be foolish, however, to think that the way we govern ourselves has stopped evolving. Our current system of democracy is by no means the be all and the end all of human governance. The same way that the printing press and a newly educated population forced the evolution of monarchies into republics centuries ago, so too is the internet now forcing governments of all stripes to grow, adapt and change. As people become further connected with advanced technologies, this movement will only accelerate.

But before things get better, they will get worse. The riots in London are only the tip of this iceberg. The internet has furthered the collective education and consciousness of the public and given us access, literally, to a world of information. It has never been easier for the average person to see just how much of the world’s increasing wealth they’re missing out on, or how much their particular government is screwing them. This, as much as anything, can explain the unrest and riots, which seem to be happening in both developed and developing countries with a growing frequency.

Democracy has been on a downward spiral in many developed nations for decades, with voter turnouts hitting new lows - excepting periodic uptick aberrations - in each successive election (the recent election in Canada saw only 61% of voters turn up, slightly higher than the record low set in 2008). The decline shows more people are either losing faith in the system, or they are fine with the status quo and simply can’t be bothered with it.

Whatever the case, with their mandates shrinking, governments are feeling less beholden to the public and are acting more boldly. Whether it’s stripping away civil rights, detaining people without due process or negotiating legislation and treaties in secret, our democratically elected governments are behaving more and more like the communists they defeated not so long ago.

But democracy is alive and well on the internet. Indeed, it’s the de facto model that almost every online operation works on; topics trend on Twitter depending on how many people are discussing them, news stories get assigned, ranked and displayed based on similar factors (as opposed to chosen by human editors, like they were in the past) and websites show up in Google searches based on how many links they have pointing to them. Online, the good and popular rises to the top - whether it’s YouTube videos, Apple apps, Amazon books or Digg stories - while the bad or unpopular is ignored or voted down.

Moreover, online democracy is exerting itself as its own form of court system, which some might call vigilantism. When Sony recently sued a hacker who had cracked the PlayStation 3, other hackers took down the company’s online video game network for a month. Conversely, when Microsoft welcomed the hacking of its Kinect games system, it earned kudos and thanks from the online community. The underlying notion behind both being that cracking devices is necessary to learn and thus propel innovation forward. Anyone who stands in the way of that, the online community has ruled, is being a bad netizen.

This is because from its very beginnings, the internet has been based on the principles of openness and community. The technical protocols on which it runs were made available for free, as was the first web browser. The fundamental principles of the internet, therefore, are the same as democracy - each user is entitled to freedom and openness, so long as they don’t harm anyone else. Those that do harm in the eyes of the collective are punished, one way or another.

Governments, whether they’re in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada or China, are beginning to understand this and are now trying to extend their reach and control into the online world through various forms of censorship or control (China is obviously further ahead). It’s a struggle they are not likely to win because laws and enforcement take time, despite diminishing democratic controls, whereas new technological circumventions move at lightning speed. The continued survival and success The Pirate Bay, the file-sharing site that authorities have been trying to shut down for the better part of a decade, is just one example of this. Simply put, laws will never catch up to technology.

Indeed, the inverse is more likely. The principles of openness and freedom cultivated on the internet, which has coincidentally been part of mainstream culture since the end of the Cold War, are more likely to bleed into the real world - literally, through riots. Governments will inevitably have no choice but to acquiesce and adapt to what are ultimately basic human desires: to be open and free. Otherwise, as advanced technologies make living in a virtual online world more realistic and palatable, people will inevitably abandon the real world and move into the ether permanently, leaving governments with no one to govern.

Categories: government, internet

New industry minister means all bets are off

May 19, 2011 5 comments

Last week, I sat down with the students who run the TEDxRyerson conference to talk about Canada’s new majority government and what it might mean for tech and telecom issues. The chat followed on a post I wrote on election night earlier this month, wherein I outlined some of what might happen under the new paradigm. If you’re curious, video of that chat is here.

In a nutshell, I thought the initial good news was that under a majority government, things would finally get done - for good or for ill. There was reason for optimism too, given that Industry Minister Tony Clement - the guy who was ultimately in charge of such issues - showed an understanding of some of Canada’s problems, as well as a desire to act on them. What never was clear is what he meant to do, particularly in regards to improving telecom competition.

On the contentious copyright issue, Clement also played good cop to Heritage Minister James Moore’s bad cop. While Moore insisted that tough copyright reform is necessary to preserve Canadian companies’ ability to innovate, Clement seemed considerably more willing to take all views into account. In the end, Clement talked the talk but he never got the chance to walk the walk on either front.

With yesterday’s announcement that he is moving on to become Treasury Minister and Quebec MP Christian Paradis taking over as Industry Minister, all bets are off on those two key issues. Those hoping for swift action, particularly in telecom - where Canada’s protectionist foreign ownership restrictions are stifling competition and causing uncertainty for Wind Mobile, not to mention the wireless industry as a whole - are probably going to have to wait a while longer.

As some industry observers point out, Paradis is going to need some time to get up to speed on what’s going on. That means the likelihood of a long-overdue “digital strategy” being introduced any time soon is probably zilch. Same goes for those much-needed reforms to foreign ownership. Rushing either would be a bad move for Paradis, as he’ll doubtlessly want to put his own stamp on them.

As UBS analysts suggest, this is good news for the likes of Bell, Rogers and Telus:

Since we believe the removal of telecom foreign ownership restrictions would create greater competition for the sector, we believe a delay in the process could help the sector by postponing the new entrants’ access to foreign capital, the potential entry of new foreign competition, and spending on new spectrum.

Moreover, getting up to speed on the industry can also be translated into: let the lobbying begin. With an industry that already has some of the highest per-capita lobbying in the country, who knows what that will result in.* With the big bucks the incumbents spend on lobbying, one thing is for sure: their views will get unfair weight in any consideration of the issues. Then again, that’s always been the problem.

On copyright, MP Dean Del Mastro says the legislation the Conservatives introduced last year will be coming back in largely the same form, which is surely a blow to anyone who hoped that Clement would have served as a moderating force in forming the bill. One of the key complaints with that bill is a clause that would make it illegal for anyone to break a digital lock placed on content or devices. Copyright watchers have been hoping that this tough measure gets an important exception - that breaking said locks for purposes other than willfully infringing copyright, like copying a CD to an iPod - would be okay. It’s hard to tell whether this key addendum ends up in the bill, but it’s worrisome that it won’t now that the good cop is off the beat.

As much as Paradis has to get the know the industry, the industry - journalists included - also need to get to know him. He isn’t starting out on the greatest foot - he’s already been involved with a scandal regarding interference with access to information requests, all of which was related to rewarding contracts to companies that fell under his previous jurisdiction.

That doesn’t sound good, especially in the context of all that lobbying mentioned above.

Over all, it’s tough to remain optimistic that things will improve or move forward any time soon in light of the cabinet shuffle. Here’s hoping the new Industry Minister gets up to speed quickly and is able to retain a balanced view on the various tricky issues he has inherited. In other words, let’s hope he remembers the consumer - as Clement seemed to - in light of the heavy lobbying he’s about to face. Paradis could very well end up the good cop, but he could also end up the bad one.

(*Back in early 2010, I was working on a special project for CBC that studied lobbyist records. Four of the top five lobbying companies in the country were oil and gas related - the fifth was Bell Canada, with other telecom companies - including Wind - also posting strong showings. I never ended up finishing that project because it proved to be too depressing.)

What a Conservative majority means for tech & telecom

Well, that certainly was an exciting election! Not many people expected a Conservative majority to emerge and even fewer saw the NDP forming the official opposition. I’ll save the general political punditry for the… er… political pundits, but I can add some thoughts on what this might mean for tech, science and telecom in Canada over the next four years.

Generally speaking, a Conservative majority is not likely to be a good thing in those areas. When the election was called, I gave the Conservatives failing grades for their policies on the internet, foreign ownership and science in general while giving them barely passing grades on copyright and deregulation. I also gave them a decent mark for their treatment of wireless. For an explanation of those grades, I’d suggest checking out that post from back in March.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will doubtlessly take the majority as an endorsement of his government’s overall policies, and as well he should. Like it or not, the people have spoken. As such, it’ll be more of the same - if not more so.

During the election, a few other issues came up. First, Industry Minister Tony Clement indicated he is not at all in favour of structural separation - or the breaking up of telecom companies into network-owning and retail segments. That idea, which is gaining popularity among the public, is not likely to see the light of day until at least the next election. That’s too bad because if Canada is ever going to do it, it’s going to be a long process. The discussion needs to start happening now.

Secondly, the issue of lawful access came up. Harper promised to pass a bill within the first 100 days of Parliament that will allow police to get internet users’ personal information without a warrant. To say that’s concerning would be an understatement. The bright side is, it’s so egregious it’s very unlikely to pass  easily. I’m sure University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist, who is an expert on such issues, will have a thorough dissection on his blog poste haste (I’ll link to it when he does). I’ll write more about it too once I’ve given it some decent thought.

Thirdly, just before the election the lovely folks at Wikileaks released some cables that detailed U.S. lobbyist efforts to influence copyright law. The cables confirmed pretty much everything Geist has been saying for the past few years about how the Conservatives have simply been trying to ramrod a U.S.-written law down Canadians’ throats. The government’s previous copyright reform law, Bill C-32, is going to be resurrected - the Conservatives promised as much in their platform - but it’s going to be very interesting to see how it plays out. The government may be emboldened by its majority and simply try to push it through, but I suspect the public’s opposition to it - which was already palpable - is only going to increase as well as a result of the new evidence. Copyright reform may very well ignite all-out revolt before this year is out.

From there, it’s on to new business. Clement, who was re-elected, kept promising before the election that a long-awaited “digital strategy” will be released this spring. Hopefully that still happens and while I don’t expect it to be good, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt before passing judgement.

With any luck, Clement will remain Minister of Industry. He may not seem to know how to fix many of Canada’s tech and telecom problems, but he has at least shown a solid awareness of their existence, which is much more than can be said about a good many MPs from all parties. At the very least, we can expect some sort of action on the whole usage-based billing issue, which Clement very vocally opposed.

The big bonus of a Conservative majority - and it’s a huge one - is that the government may finally move to get rid of those foreign ownership limits on telecom companies. With the fate of Wind Mobile continuing to dangle in the wind (pun intended), this is likely to be addressed quickly. All the work has been done and the hearings have been held - the trigger simply needs to be pulled.

The smart money is that the government will lift ownership restrictions on small companies, so foreigners can own the likes of Wind or start up new businesses, with the shackles coming off the big guys in a few years time. As I’ve written many, many times, this is a painfully overdue step that needs to be taken and it could ultimately be the most important thing the government can do as far as tech and telecom are concerned. In the end, Harper haters may ironically end up owing him a big debt of gratitude - his government may change the rules that eventually lead to companies such as Bell and Rogers ceasing to exist.

While the Conservatives’ performance on tech, science and telecom issues up till now has been wanting for the most part, some of that may very well have been because of the caution that a minority government must operate under. There is consequently a lot of room for improvement - let’s hope we see it.


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