Policy and participation on the Canadian information highway
First Monday

Policy and participation on the Canadian information highway by William F. Birdsall



Abstract
The debate over universal access is focused on too narrow a concept by all sides of the argument. Furthermore, this debate continues to be an exclusive one dominated by special interest groups operating in a legalistic regulatory process. As an alternative, this paper proposes that the issue of universal access be addressed in the broader conceptual framework of the right to communicate. As well, the policy debate should be moved to the political arena through an initiative to incorporate the right to communicate in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Contents

Introduction
Limited Consultation
Increased Public Interest in Participation
Special Interest Groups
The Need for Government Action
The Information Highway Advisory Council
CRTC Hearings
Special Interest Group Resources
Public Interest Groups
Telecommunications and Direct Democracy
Access to Government
Business and Government
Government-Industry Links
Government Values
Political Passivity
People and Public Policy
Origin of the Right to Communicate
A Right to Communicate
Why a Right to Communicate in Canada?
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms

 


 

Introduction

In 1994, the Canadian government formed the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC). The formation of a body to examine how Canada could get on the information highway was consonant with national information infrastructure (NII) initiatives in other countries in the mid–1990s. IHAC’s recommendations were adopted by the government in its policy statement Building the Information Society: Moving Canada into the 21st Century [1]. The essential policy thrust is to place the responsibility in the private sector for the construction of the information highway and for services provided on it. Government’s role is a policy of “Connecting Canadians” to the Internet, claiming thereby that it is promoting universal service.

Public interest and consumer groups criticized the IHAC for its private sector bias, lack of public participation, and inadequate response to broader needs of Canadian citizens. However, IHAC’s exclusive policy process was not unique. It is based on government processes relating to computing and telecommunications policy over the past three decades. Government telecommunications policy practices consistently excluded most Canadians while providing businesses ample opportunities to make their views known. As a result, the objective of the Federal government’s universal access policy of connecting Canadians is to create an Internet–based mass market of consumers sufficient to drive the private sector construction of an information highway.

Public service advocates promulgate a broader concept of universal access that includes social, cultural, and educational objectives beyond those of the government's more limited economic one. However, this paper argues that the debate over universal access is focused on too narrow a concept by all sides of the argument. Furthermore, the debate continues to be an exclusive one dominated by special interest groups in a legalistic regulatory process. As an alternative, I propose that the issue of universal access should be addressed in the broader conceptual framework of the right to communicate. As well, the policy debate should be moved to the political arena through an initiative to incorporate the right to communicate in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This paper reviews the policy process triggered in the late 1960s when policy makers began to foresee the implications of the merging of computing and telecommunications technologies. It examines these policy processes by focusing on a number of reports issued over the years, culminating with the policy statement by the Information Highway Advisory Council. The paper concludes with a brief examination of the right to communicate and its potential incorporation into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

 

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Limited Consultation

The lack of broader consultation was not because policy–makers were unaware of the significance of rapid developments in telecommunications. The change in the telecommunications environment and its implications for economic and social planning was noted in the early 1970s by the Department of Communications (DOC) Telecommission in its landmark report, Instant World. The senior government officials constituting the Telecommission agreed that the marriage of telecommunications and computing raised the critical issue of “who is to decide what society wants?” [2]. Technology, the Telecommission observed, was more than just plumbing, it was necessary to ask “why?” and “what for?” Nevertheless, the process leading to the final report of the Telecommission relied almost exclusively on academic experts and industry input.

The Telecommission initiated over 40 studies but there were no public hearings. The reports were by legal and academic experts. Written submissions to the Telecommission were overwhelmingly from industry firms and associations. The Telecommission established an 18–member project team to report on institutional arrangements required to provide national information services in the public interest, an issue that would seem to be of interest to a broad range of Canadians. While there was a member on the team from the Consumer Association of Canada, this modest representation from the public was offset by members from the Canadian Manufacturers Association, Canadian Equipment Manufacturers Association, and numerous legal, academic, and industry representatives.

Rather than hold public meetings, the Telecommission adopted an academic model by holding a series of “seminars” of experts at various university campuses At a seminar on “Telecommunications and Participation,” a topic that seems to cry for public input, the 70 some participants were political scientists, sociologists, computing scientists, psychologists, engineers, lawyers, broadcasters, educators, filmmakers, journalists and industry executives. This reliance on experts was also the case with the 90 participants at a seminar on “Access to Information: How to Know and Be Known,” the 80 participants at the seminar on “Telecommunications and the Arts,” and the 120 people at the seminar on “The Wired City.” At a seminar on “Computers: Privacy and Freedom of Information,” attended by 160 government and industry representatives, some delegates did complain that there were no one represented young people, consumer groups, or the general public. Hence, the report of the Telecommission was derived from the input of a policy elite.

The Telecommission’s final report does state that “the social impact of future telecommunications and information systems will call for the widest possible advance consultation about their purpose, planning, and use” [3]. But Instant World would not be the only report over the years to urge government to draw in a wider range of participants to its telecommunications policy process while in fact failing to do so itself. While such exhortations would be repeated, they were just as often ignored.

Limiting consultation to primarily industry representatives and academics became the standard operating procedure. Following on the work of the Telecommission, the government’s Canadian Computer Communications Task Force pursued the practice of limiting consultation to industry groups and firms, when preparing its report, Branching Out [4]. The Task Force sent about 700 invitations for submissions of position papers to businesses and industry associations and provincial and federal government departments. It held meetings of senior business executives in Toronto and Montreal. In addition about 100 major users of such services in the private sector were visited. The list of those consulted is almost exclusively from the business world and major institutional users of telecommunications and computing services. But no public hearings were held.

In 1979, the Consultative Committee on the Implications of Telecommunications for Canadian Sovereignty claimed in its report, Telecommunications and Canada [5], that it could not hold public hearings because of the limited time it had to complete its task. Still, it invited briefs from provincial governments and arranged for the main trade associations to meet with the full Committee. It met with 22 delegations but, with the exception of the Consumers Association of Canada, all these groups were federal and provincial government agencies, industry corporations and associations, and unions. The Committee received 67 other submissions, overwhelmingly from industry.

The Committee, in short, continued the practice of relying almost solely on government officials, academic experts, and industry groups. Nonetheless, this Committee also recommended that the government should “launch a national awareness campaign to explain the social, economic and cultural implications of the new electronic information society.” It observed that “Without a much wider appreciation of the fundamental nature of the changes now taking place it is unlikely that effective mechanisms for considering the issues will be developed, let alone the implementation of appropriate solutions” [6]. But such would not be the case. Indeed, this report was the last major study undertaken by any task force type of process until the formation of the Information Highway Advisory Council in the 1990s.

 

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Increased Public Interest in Participation

However, those wanting to participate in telecommunications policy and regulatory proceedings increased dramatically in the 1980s and ’90s. There were several reasons for this development. As telecommunications became a central component of federal and provincial government economic development policies a wider range of interested parties were attracted to policy–making and the process became more politicized. The range of issues generated by convergence in telecommunications also involved a greater array of telecommunications providers and users, all of whom wanted a voice in policy matters.

Concurrently, the telecommunications regulatory process became more open. Until the late 1970s regulatory procedures in Canada were highly centralized and relatively immune from public pressure groups. This situation changed dramatically when telecommunication regulation was shifted to the newly created Canadian Radio–Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The Commission established hearing processes that welcomed the inclusion of public pressure groups. It even assisted groups with the costs of preparing interventions in CRTC hearings.

Another factor that changed policy processes was the new political environment. When the Conservatives were elected 1984, lobbying became more overt and aggressive. Consulting firms trumpeted their high–level government connections. Telecommunications companies were among those who devoted more attention to government by hiring firms and individuals with close ties to the government [7]. This heated atmosphere encouraged the formation of special interest groups on all sides of issues.

 

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Special Interest Groups

Special interest groups who focus on telecommunications issues can be roughly sorted into two broad categories [8]. There are those groups whose objective is to advance the self–interest of their members. In second category are groups that claim that their role is to promote the public interest. Any particular group may include both objectives but groups tend towards one category or the other. The membership of the groups primarily concerned with the self–interest of their members typically consists of major industry providers and large institutional users of telecommunications equipment and services. The telecommunications industry consists of several highly competitive sectors including telephony, cable, and broadcasting. Each sector has marshaled its constituency into formidable industry associations. Examples include the Canadian Advanced Technology Association (CATA), Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB), Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP), Canadian Business Telecommunications Alliance (CBTA), Canadian Cable Television Association (CCTA), Canadian Satellite Users Association (CSUA), Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, and Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC).

The public interest or consumer groups espouse a concern for the greater public good rather than the special interests of their members. Examples of groups in this category are the Alliance for a Connected Canada, Coalition for Public Information, Electronic Frontier Canada, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, and Telecommunities Canada, Inc. Their membership is usually personal members rather than institutional.

By the 1990s, then, there was a considerable array of special interest groups on the industry and public interest sides of telecommunications, a clear indication many wanted a voice in the shaping of telecommunications and the information highway. How did the government respond when it felt compelled to formulate an information highway policy? Instead of enlivening policy strategy by broadening participation in its formulation it turned internally to one of its own.

 

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The Need for Government Action

In early 1993, Bernard Ostry was asked by the government to prepare a report recommending how it should proceed. Ostry was an experienced former public servant who had served as Deputy Minister of Communications, Industry and Trade, and Citizenship and Culture. More recently he had been the CEO of TVOntario. With this background, he was familiar with the economic, social, and cultural policy issues government needed to address. His report, The Electronic Connection: An Essential Key to Canadian’s Survival [9], provided a review of 25 years of federal government inaction due, in his view, to a lack of leadership, bureaucratic turf wars, and misplaced priorities. He pointed out that there had been since the 1960s a steady stream of reports calling for government action. Yet, succeeding governments were distracted by a concern over American domination in telecommunications, broadcasting, and global competition in the high–tech information society.

Ostry was impatient for government action and feared any such initiatives would get bogged down by public input or questioning. He recommended that the government proceed with an electronic highway initiative by forming a Cabinet committee of relevant Ministers and creating action–orientated task forces with representatives from the private sector to focus on narrow operational issues. Ostry felt the issues had been studied to death; public hearings would not be fruitful. However, it was difficult for government to ignore the array of pressure groups that now existed. The government formed an advisory group that gave the appearance of wider consultation than Ostry’s strategy. Nonetheless, when the government established the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC) in 1994, it continued the practice of forming an advisory committee dominated by industry.

 

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The Information Highway Advisory Council

Of its 29 members, 15 were presidents, CEOs, and chairmen of major telecommunications firms. There was a former Minister of Communications who was a registered lobbyist working in the telecommunications industry. The remaining members included a provincial deputy minister, a sprinkling of academics, computing administrators, consumer group representatives, and a union official, (who issued a dissenting minority report). A representative from the arts was added only after that community complained of having no representation when IHAC was initially formed.

Like the Telecommission 25 years earlier, the Council established an elaborate structure of working groups to deal with competitiveness and job creation, Canadian content and culture, access and social impacts, learning and training, research and development, applications and market development, competition and regulation, growth, employment and competitiveness, and copyright. While this structure implies wide consultation, the participants were primarily industry representatives and academic experts selected by the government.

It is within this enclosed structure that IHAC arrived at its recommendations. Working groups made their recommendations to the Council where they were voted upon. It was only then that the Council’s approved recommendations were made public. Initially the Council met in camera until it came under public pressure to open its deliberations. In response to demands for public access to the Council, the Government instead had hearings called by the CRTC rather than by IHAC itself. The CRTC received 1,085 written submissions and had 78 parties attend oral hearings in Ottawa. Clearly, there was wide interest in this topic in the public arena. However, through this process IHAC got its only public input filtered through the CRTC. While public interest groups attempted to put their views before the IHAC in various ways there were no formal public hearings and no soliciting of submissions from the public. Industry Canada took the position that the CRTC hearings were sufficient [10].

 

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CRTC Hearings

But what is the nature of CRTC hearings? The CRTC prides itself on its efforts to solicit submissions. It holds hearings outside Ottawa, encourages input through its Web site, and places notices in the press. Yet, because of the formal nature of its hearings, only those who have the resources and knowledge of its legalistic procedures can effectively participate. The impediments to wider public participation are illustrated in Karen Adam’s description of her first encounter with CRTC proceedings as the Executive Director of the Canadian Library Association (CLA). The CLA was making the case that libraries, as educational institutions, should receive preferential telephone rates. Thus, Adams embarked on submitting a brief on behalf the CLA.

First there was the matter of an overabundance of documents: “The sheer volume of this paper was overwhelming to the lay reader” according to Adams. The next challenge encountered was the legal jargon of the hearings. Not only must a participant understand the legal process, but also “what is essentially a foreign language... .” It struck Adams that the use of such language “indicated why public participation in such hearings is limited to only the most committed people. If the public does not speak the language, it cannot participate.” The process is further complicated because the telephone companies have appropriated the language of the public interest advocates by using such phrases as “universal and affordable access” but giving them their own meanings [11]. Adams presents a vivid picture of a bureaucratic, legalistic process that assures that only the most avid special interest groups and corporations will get involved.

 

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Special Interest Group Resources

Public pressure groups can be important means of developing specialized expertise to stay abreast of rapid developments in telecommunications. They play a role in mustering support to insure that alternative views to those of others in the policy community are heard. But why have the public interest groups not been more effective? The availability of financial and human resources is a critical factor. There is a imbalance in resources between industry and public pressure groups. Industry groups’ substantial memberships give them status with government, permanent staff to follow through on policy and lobbying, and stable annual funding. Their access to government is enhanced by having headquarters located in Ottawa, the national capital, with full–time staff. They maintain a regional presence through local chapters and extensive committee structures. Industry groups can claim they speak for important segments of the telecommunications industry.

 

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Public Interest Groups

Public special interest groups tend to have less resources than the industry groups. Among many public interest groups, telecommunications advocacy is often their only reason for existing. Examples of this narrower focus are Electronic Frontier Canada on free speech and Telecommunities Canada, Inc. (TCI) on community networks. Because of a narrow focus their membership is limited. These groups face the challenge of attracting members. Most consumers become aroused only when confronted with an immediate overt impact on their personal use of telecommunications services, such as a dramatic increase in monthly charges. Thus, public pressure group membership is more problematic. Consequently, their financial resources are limited, they are less likely to have permanent staff, and are rarely located in Ottawa.

The fragile financial state of public interest groups makes their existence and impact marginal. Some could not survive without government subsidization which poses another problem: they are especially vulnerable to government manipulation. While there is the perception that the process is more inclusive, the fact is that government can use industry and public special interest groups as a means of exclusion and of control of the policy debate. By favoring certain groups with funding and by providing access to officials, government can control the flow and intensity of the input and debate. In 1993, the year the government passed pro–competitive telecommunications legislation, the CRTC advised the Consumers Association of Canada (CAC) that it would no longer fund CAC intervention in the Commission’s hearings, thereby ending a decade of such support. By such devises government attracts input from various perspectives and prescribes the range of participation.

 

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Telecommunications and Direct Democracy

Some claim that information technology itself will advance the cause of democratic participation. While the Internet facilitates the creation of pressure groups, again it is industry groups that are most able to take advantage of the Internet’s potential as an advocacy tool. The industry associations and their members have the technological and financial resources to exploit the Internet. In contrast, groups representing consumers find maintaining updated Web sites difficult. They are further inhibited by the fact that the vast majority of their potential members do not have the technology to access the Internet. Only 36 percent of Canadian households have computers and 13 percent Internet access. And this access is heavily weighted to high income households and, therefore, unrepresentative of the general population. To be effective, direct democracy can only occur at the pace citizens gain access to the Internet.

 

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Access to Government

Meanwhile, Canadian governmental structure favors those who have a strong presence in Ottawa. Bound by party discipline, members of Parliament have limited power to influence policy. Real power resides with the Cabinet. Therefore, lobbying effectiveness is dependent on those who have access to Ministers and senior public servants. A textbook on Canadian business and government observes that “Studies of pressure behaviour show that political influence tends to be associated with permanent organization, a professional staff, extensive financial resources and direct access to political and bureaucratic decision–makers. Organizations representing business interests are more likely to possess these characteristics than other groups” [12]. An examination of special interest groups specializing in telecommunications demonstrates the contrast between industry and public interest groups. Telecommunications industry associations are well financed and possess substantial infrastructures to promote their policy concerns. They have access to government at the ministerial level and are assured membership on such bodies as the IHAC. In contrast, public interest groups possess limited resources. They are rarely located in Ottawa. Their membership is small and unrepresentative. Their efforts to foment public discussion are channeled into formal, legalistic procedural hearings, like the CRTC. They have little or no access to senior government politicians except when it serves the minister’s purpose. In sum, they are on the margins of policy–making processes.

 

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Business and Government

Business has learned much about conducting “government relations.” Indeed, a potential business manager is expected to know how to deal with government. W. T. Stanbury’s text, Business–Government Relations in Canada: Influencing Public Policy [13], is particularly worth attention. Stanbury, a professor of regulation and competition policy in the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration, is a widely recognized authority on telecommunications policy issues. In a chapter on how business can formulate persuasive arguments Stanbury's discussion of “public interest” is especially pertinent.

According to Stanbury all interest groups maintain that their demands serve the public interest. He argues that business can make as much strategic use of the concept of public interest as do public interest groups. “The object of the game is for firms and other interest groups to make their case sufficiently appealing that they are able to win from policy–makers the imprimatur that what they want is ‘in the public interest.’” In this way, “Private desires are thereby transformed into public policy” [14]. He advises that “naked self–interest” must be cloaked in such terms because it is generally considered bad taste to argue blatantly for one’s self–interest, it allows politicians to avoid appearing to favour one group over another, and it can attract allies or at least neutralize the opposition.

Stanbury provides specific arguments to assist firms in developing the perception that their claims are in the public interest. There is the argument that “everyone benefits.” The benefits derived from the public policy advanced by the firm will presumably be distributed beyond the firm itself. It is good if the case can be made that the policy will especially benefit deserving or disadvantaged groups or if it appeals to symbols that have strong emotional appeal. Themes suggested by Stanbury as being especially effective include increasing exports, promoting the economic benefits of high technology as a means of economic growth in a global economy, contributing to national unity, advancing equity and fairness, and creating jobs [15].

 

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Government-Industry Links

Business has also become adept at cementing ties with government. Ursula Franklin, University of Toronto experimental physicist and historian of technology, observes that “The political systems in most of today’s real world of technology are not structured to allow public debate and public input at the point of planning technological enterprises of national scope” [16]. Instead, government and industry planning become increasingly enmeshed. In Franklin’s words, “It is often difficult to see where one ends and the other begins, since there is a communality of expertise. Expert advice comes from professionals who move with ease between governments and technological enterprises” [17]. Consequently, as two political scientists observe, “Naturally, while still in office, top public servants are aware that they may well land a lucrative job serving business when they leave. This, of course, assumes that they do not alienate business too much during their term of public office” [18].

The telecommunications industry hires former politicians and senior bureaucrats with close connections to government. Recently the federal government’s former head of the Competition Bureau became an executive vice–president for a major telecommunication company at an annual salary exceeding $300,000 [19]. When Star Choice, a direct–to–home satellite company, was preparing for a CRTC hearing, it hired a consultant who had just stepped down the year before as CRTC vice-chairman [20].

Such links sometimes become such an embarrassment politicians feel the need to raise objections to the close connections between, for example, the CRTC and industry. In April, 1998, 36 Liberal Party members of Parliament sent a letter to the Heritage Canada Minister calling for the formation of a task force to review the relationship between the CRTC and the industry it regulates. The letter said that because most commissioners were from industry, the CRTC is simply a mediator between government and industry rather than a regulator looking out for the public interest. No such task force was formed.

 

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Government Values

Current government values reinforce this enclosed world of government and business. Because government departments are under pressure to adopt market values, information technology, and greater efficiency, “the first preoccupation of civil servants,” according to Karen Adams, who as Executive Director of the Canadian Library Association was an acute observer and participant in the Ottawa policy scene, “is meeting the needs of fellow civil servants and of politicians rather than the needs of Canadian citizens outside the government.” Consequently, “Inaccessible, overcommitted staff do not constitute a successful environment for consultation.” This is a severe problem because the best time to influence policy formulation is with staff at the departmental level.

This environment of pressure on public servants to find the most politically acceptable program within the market values of government policy influences as well the values of public servants. The concept of “public good” is replaced by “public interests.” According to Adams, public servants are well aware that “The idea that government exists to serve the collective best interest of its citizens has been replaced by the idea that government exists to mediate the interests of different groups of customers. ‘Citizens’ rights have been replaced by ‘customers’ with wants and needs” [21].

 

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Political Passivity

Meanwhile, the public is given little opportunity to debate the benefits and costs of the information highway. The technological determinism characteristic of the rhetoric surrounding the information highway and globalization invites individual passivity and abstinence from political activity. As Franklin maintains, the benefits derived from technology comes at the cost of fostering “a culture of compliance, that we are ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept that there is only one way of doing ‘it’” [22]. A recent study of the effectiveness of telecommunications public pressure groups addresses the dilemma when it observes that “Seeking greater effectiveness for public interest groups in communications policy formation ... may be only an interim strategy.” These researchers assert that broader public participation must be the more permanent and democratic objective. They call for a re–invention of government consultations processes and warn that “Relying on underfunded, voluntary and informal efforts will not address the demands that governance, properly organized, should fulfill” [23]. How might such a re–invention of government occur? I assert that a right to communicate must be incorporated into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms [24].

 

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People and Public Policy

A touchstone of government information policy is its position on universal access. In Canada, the debate over universal access is focused on too narrow a concept, that is, technical connectivity. Furthermore, the process of the debate is limited to legalistic regulatory procedures dominated by sophisticated special interest groups. I propose that the issue of universal access be opened up to a consideration of the broader concept of the right to communicate. An initiative to incorporate the right to communicate into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would provide a political process for considering not only access, but important related issues of freedom of information, access to government information, cultural policy, language rights, and other issues central to a genuine universal policy.

The right to communicate is not a new concept to Canadian communications policy discourse. Three decades ago the Telecommission recognized that the increasing availability of information over sophisticated telecommunications networks raised new issues about universal access. It affirmed that freedom of knowledge and freedom of information are the most valued rights in a democratic society. The Telecommission asserted that the combinations of the right to hear and to be heard, to inform others and to be informed, are essential elements of a right to communicate. Although not embodied in legislation, the Telecommission declared that every citizen should possess this right regardless where she or he lives. Where did the Telecommission get this idea?

 

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Origin of the Right to Communicate

The father of the idea of the right to communicate is Jean D’Arcy. D’Arcy, Director of Radio and Visual Services in the U.N. Office of Public Information, responded to developments in satellite technology with an article in 1969 on “Direct broadcast satellites and the right to communicate” [25]. Article 19 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Article 19 was crafted out of the post–war concern for the free flow of information, primarily through the mass media. It was D’Arcy’s insight to see that Article 19 was too narrow due to recent technological developments. He asserted:

“The time will come when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will have to encompass a more extensive right than man’s right to information, first laid down 21 years ago in Article 19. This is the right of man to communicate.” [26]

D’Arcy recognized that broadcasting, computing, and telecommunications technologies were going to be increasingly inter–related. Communications would no longer be confined to the elite as more people acquired the means to participate in communication processes. The significance of D’Arcy’s insight was recognized by the members of the Telecommission. Henry Hindley, its Executive Secretary, acknowledged that D’Arcy’s paper impressed the Telecommission. However, while efforts would continue at the international level to formulate a right to communicate, Canadian policy–makers did not follow–up on the bold assertions of the Telecommission. According to Hindley, “resounding declarations” had to give way to “practical limitations” [27]. Resounding declarations raise the spectre of participatory planning and political activism. As we have seen, this was not the mode of planning adopted by the Canadian government.

 

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A Right to Communicate

What would a right to communicate look like? Reaching a consensus on a specific definition has been difficult. Efforts to define a right to communicate have been confined to the international level. UNESCO in particular brought working groups together into the early 1980s in an effort to construct a definition of the right to communicate. These efforts foundered on east/west and north/south ideological differences. As UNESCO withdrew its support for a right to communicate initiative, non–governmental organizations (NGOs), such as the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), continue the quest to develop rights and charter statements.

It is not my purpose to advocate a specific definition of a right to communicate. That objective belongs to the political debate. However, there is a rich body of literature generated by those who have attempted to achieve a definition that provides a sense of what such a right could encompass [28]. Jim Richstad and Michael H. Anderson observe that “The right to communicate is complex and evolving concept but can simply be put as: ‘Everyone has the right to communicate.’” For them the right includes “at least the right to inform and be informed, the right of active participation in the communication process, the right of equitable access to communication resources and information, and the right of cultural and individual privacy from communication.” The right is “premised on the shift in communication from a one–way, vertical system to a multiway, horizontal system with high levels of participation on individual and community terms... .” Furthermore, “A key philosophical shift is that people have a right to communication resources necessary to their communication needs — that communication means beyond the interpersonal level should be equitably shared and not controlled by wealthy powerful groups, individuals, or nations” [29].

A challenge to defining a right to communicate is to insure that it is not either a meaningless generality or so encompassing and complex that it collapses from its own weight. To meet this problem one of its most forceful advocates, Desmond Fisher, proposes adopting an hierarchical conceptual framework that distinguishes between rights, freedoms, and entitlements. The right to communicate is an inner core of interconnected freedoms. These include freedom of opinion, of expression, and of information. The right to communicate becomes a basic right exercised through this secondary set of freedoms. These freedoms in turn are translated into practice through such entitlements as “freedom of the press, the absence of censorship, the independence of broadcasting the right of journalists to protect their sources, the right to access to information and so on” [30]. According to Fisher, within this hierarchy of rights, freedoms, and entitlements the responsibility of the state is to recognize the right to communicate and to create “the conditions under which the practical freedoms and entitlements which derive from the right itself can be implemented” [31]. These responsibilities are not only legislative but include as well the provision of the financial and technical resources that allow citizens to exercise their right to communicate.

 

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Why a Right to Communicate in Canada?

The right to communicate meets the need to move beyond a narrow conception of universal access based on technical connectivity. It provides a conceptual framework within which Canadians can address not only access to information in the broadest sense but also the related issues of intellectual freedom, language rights, intellectual property rights, cultural identity, and technological planning, all issues relevant to the Canadian context. The right to communicate is not just a “resounding declaration” as characterized by the Telecommission’s secretary but, as noted by the international communication consultant Henry Cassirer, a practical task of turning modern communication media into genuine modes of communication. His eloquent but pragmatic characterization of the challenge in the closing years of the 1970s is even more pertinent today:

“The wisdom of genuine democratic participation and decision–making, of relying on the knowledge, the aspirations, and the initiatives of the people and not only on the political will and the expertise of the authorities, lies in the realization that this is the least harmful and frustrating way of peacefully resolving the inevitable conflicts that shake society and herald change.” [32]

It is time to build on the foresight demonstrated by the Telecommission and to undertake the debate inherent in the complex concept of the right to communicate. But this time the “wisdom of genuine democratic participation and decision making, of relying on the knowledge, the aspirations, and the initiatives of the people” cannot be passed over to “the political will and the expertise of the authorities.”

Canadians are eminently qualified to undertake such a debate. That they are communications sophisticated is demonstrated in many ways. They are well aware that modes of communication have played a central role in national political, economic, and cultural development. The contribution to understanding communication issues by Canadians such Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Dallas Smythe, and their many heirs is testimony to the importance of communications in the Canadian imagination. Canada was the first country to recognize the important implications of the right to communicate with the Telecommission’s report, Instant World. Canada’s household penetration rates for telephony, cable, and computers are among the highest in the world. Canadians are also experienced in drafting and legislating rights legislation. The principal author of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, of which Article 19 is a part, was the Canadian John Peters Humphrey, first director of the U.N. Human Rights Division. And in 1982, Canada legislated its own Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

 

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The Charter of Rights and Freedoms

An initiative to incorporate the right to communicate into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would provide a political process for widespread debate of all the aspects of the right to communicate. Amendments to the Charter must be passed by both the federal House and Senate as well as receiving the consent of seven provinces with at least half the total population of all the provinces. In short, the right to communicate would be subject to extensive political debate at both the provincial and national levels.

The Charter currently includes “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.” However, this right reflects the traditional one–way media communication orientation that D’Arcy identified as outmoded three decades ago. At that time, senior Canadian government officials recognized the importance of the right to communicate. It is now time for all Canadians to have the opportunity to debate its merits. End of article

 

About the author

William F. Birdsall is Executive Director of Novanet Inc., a consortium of Nova Scotia acadmic libraries.
E–mail: bill [dot] birdsall [at] Novanet [dot] NS [dot] CA

 

Notes

1. Canada Information Highway Advisory Council, 1996. Building the information society: Moving Canada into the 21st century. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services.

2. Canada. Department of Communications. Telecommission Directing Committee, 1971. Instant World: A report on telecommunications in Canada. Ottawa: Information Canada, p. 23.

3. Op. cit., p. 233.

4. Canadian Computer/Communications Task Force, 1972. Branching Out: Report of the Canadian Computer/Communications Task Force. Two vols. Ottawa: Department of Communications.

5. Canada Consultative Committee on the Implications of Telecommunications for Canadian Sovereignty, 1979. Telecommunications and Canada. Ottawa: The Committee (available from Canadian Govt. Pub. Centre, Supply and Services Canada), 1979.

6. Op. cit., p. 65.

7. Stephen Brooks and Andrew Stritch, 1991. Business and Government in Canada. Scarborough: Prentice–Hall, p. 227; Lawrence Surtees, 1994. Wire Wars: The Canadian Fight for Competition in Telecommunications. Scarbourough: Prentice–Hall Canada, pp. 209–213.

8. William F. Birdsall, 1998. “Policy and players: The telecommunications policy community,” In: Karen Adams and William F. Birdsall (editors). Understanding telecommunications and public policy: A guide for libraries. Ottawa: Canadian Library Association and Dalhousie School of Library and Information Studies, pp. 117–141.

9. Bernard Ostry, 1993. The Electronic Connection: An Essential Key to Canadians’ Survival. Ottawa: Industry Canada.

10. Stephen D. McDowell and Cheryl Cowan Buchwald, 1997. “Public interest groups and the Canadian information highway,” Telecommunications Policy, volume 21, number 8, p. 710.

11. Karen Adams, 1998. “Conflicting values: Librarianship, public policy and telecommunications,” In: Karen Adams and William F. Birdsall (editors). Understanding telecommunications and public policy: A guide for libraries. Ottawa: Canadian Library Association and Dalhousie School of Library and Information Studies, p. 11.

12. Stephen Brooks and Andrew Stritch, 1991. Business and government in Canada. Scarborough: Prentice–Hall, pp. 22–23.

13. W. T. Stanbury, 1993. Business–government relations in Canada: Influencing public policy. Scarborough: Nelson Canada.

14. Op.cit., p. 427.

15. Op.cit., pp. 428–435.

16. Ursula Franklin, 1990. The real world of technology. Montreal: CBC Enterprises, p. 68.

17. Op.cit., p. 71.

18. Brooks and Stritch, 1991. Business and government in Canada, p. 229.

19. Lawrence Surtees, 1998. “Telus CEO received 32% raise,” Toronto Globe & Mail (21 April), p. B5.

20. Robert Brehl, 1998. “Star Choice eager to move in on Cancom’s rural turf,” Toronto Globe & Mail (14 February), p. B3.

21. Adams, 1998. “Conflicting values: Librarianship, public policy and telecommunications,” pp. 5–6.

22. Franklin, 1990. The real world of technology, p. 24.

23. McDowell and Buchwald, 1997. “Public interest groups and the Canadian information highway,” p. 718.

24. William F. Birdsall, 1998. “A Canadian right to communicate?” Government information in Canada/Information gouvernementale au Canada nnumber 15, at http://www.usask.ca/library/gic/15/birdsall.html.

25. Jean D’Arcy, 1977. “Direct broadcast satellites and the right to communicate,” In: L. S. Harms, Jim Richstad, and Kathleen A. Kie (editors). Right to communicate: Collected papers. Honolulu: Social Sciences and Linguistics Institute, University of Hawaii at Manoa (distributed by University Press of Hawaii), pp. 1–9. This paper was originally published in EBU Review, volume 118 (1969), pp. 14–18.

26. Op.cit., p. 1.

27. L. S. Harms, Jim Richstad, and Kathleen A. Kie, 1977. “The emergence of the right to communicate: 1970–1975,” In: L. S. Harms, Jim Richstad, and Kathleen A. Kie (editors). Right to communicate: Collected papers. Honolulu: Social Sciences and Linguistics Institute, University of Hawaii at Manoa (distributed by University Press of Hawaii), pp. 114–115.

28. Desmond Fisher, 1982. The right to communicate: A status report. Paris: UNESCO.

29. Jim Richstad and Michael H. Anderson, 1981. “Policy context for news and a ‘new order’,” In: Jim Richstad and Michael H. Anderson (editors). Crisis in international news: Policies and prospects. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 26–27.

30. Fisher, 1982, The right to communicate, p. 22.

31. Op.cit., p. 28.

32. Henry R. Cassierer, 1977. “It’s a long way to communication,” In: Jim Richstad and L. S. Harms (editors). Evolving perspectives on the right to communicate. Honolulu : East–West Center, East–West Communication Institute (distributed by the University Press of Hawaii), p. 56.

 

References

Karen Adams, 1998. “Conflicting values: Librarianship, public policy and telecommunications,” In: Karen Adams and William F. Birdsall (editors). Understanding telecommunications and public policy: A guide for libraries. Ottawa: Canadian Library Association and Dalhousie School of Library and Information Studies, pp. 1–14.

William F. Birdsall, 1998a. “A Canadian right to communicate?” Government information in Canada/Information gouvernementale au Canada, number 15, at http://www.usask.ca/library/gic/15/birdsall.html.

William F. Birdsall, 1998b. “Policy and players: The telecommunications policy community,” In: Karen Adams and William F. Birdsall (editors). Understanding telecommunications and public policy: A guide for libraries. Ottawa: Canadian Library Association and Dalhousie School of Library and Information Studies, pp. 117–141.

Robert Brehl, 1998. “Star Choice eager to move in on Cancom’s rural turf,” Toronto Globe & Mail (14 February), p. B3.

Stephen Brooks and Andrew Stritch, 1991. Business and government in Canada. Scarborough: Prentice–Hall.

Canada. Department of Communications. Telecommission Directing Committee, 1971. Instant world: A report on telecommunications in Canada. Ottawa: Information Canada

Canadian Computer/Communications Task Force, 1972. Branching out: Report of the Canadian Computer/Communications Task Force. Two volumes. Ottawa: Department of Communications.

Canada Consultative Committee on the Implications of Telecommunications for Canadian Sovereignty, 1979. Telecommunications and Canada. Ottawa: The Committee (available from Canadian Govt. Pub. Centre, Supply and Services Canada).

Canada. Information Highway Advisory Council, 1995. Connection community content: The challenge of the information highway: Final report of the Information Highway Advisory Council. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada (available from Industry Canada).

Canada. Information Highway Advisory Council, 1996. Building the information society: Moving Canada into the 21st century. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services.

Canada. Information Highway Advisory Council, 1997. Preparing Canada for a digital world. Ottawa: Industry Canada.

Henry R. Cassierer, 1977. “It’s a long way to communication,” In: Jim Richstad and L. S. Harms (editors). Evolving perspectives on the right to communicate. Honolulu : East–West Center, East–West Communication Institute (distributed by the University Press of Hawaii), pp. 53–63.

Jean D'Arcy, 1977. “Direct broadcast satellites and the right to communicate,” In: L. S. Harms, Jim Richstad, and Kathleen A. Kie (editors). Right to communicate: Collected papers. Honolulu: Social Sciences and Linguistics Institute, University of Hawaii at Manoa (distributed by University Press of Hawaii), pp. 1–9. This paper was originally published in EBU Review, volume 118 (1969), pp. 14–18.

Desmond Fisher, 1982. The right to communicate: A status report. Paris: UNESCO.

Ursula Franklin, 1990. The real world of technology. Montreal: CBC Enterprises.

L. S. Harms, Jim Richstad, and Kathleen A. Kie, 1977. “The emergence of the right to communicate: 1970–1975,” In: L. S. Harms, Jim Richstad, and Kathleen A. Kie (editors). Right to communicate: Collected papers. Honolulu: Social Sciences and Linguistics Institute, University of Hawaii at Manoa (distributed by University Press of Hawaii), pp. 112–136.

Stephen D. McDowell and Cheryl Cowan Buchwald, 1997. “Public interest groups and the Canadian information highway,” Telecommunications Policy, volume 21, number 8, pp. 709–719. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0308-5961(97)00041-4

Bernard Ostry, 1993. The electronic connection: An essential key to Canadians’ survival. Ottawa: Industry Canada.

Jim Richstad and Michael H. Anderson, 1981. “Policy context for news and a ‘new order’,” In: Jim Richstad and Michael H. Anderson (editors). Crisis in international news: Policies and prospects. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 9–34.

W. T. Stanbury, 1993. Business–government relations in Canada: Influencing public policy. Scarborough: Nelson Canada.

Lawrence Surtees, 1994. Wire wars: The Canadian fight for competition in telecommunications. Scarbourough: Prentice–Hall Canada.

Lawrence Surtees, 1998. “Telus CEO received 32% raise,” Toronto Globe & Mail (21 April), p. B5.

 


Copyright © 1999, First Monday.
Copyright © 1999, William F. Birdsall.

Policy and participation on the Canadian information highway
by William F. Birdsall
First Monday, Volume 4, Number 3 - 1 March 1999
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/653/568





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