The Digital Divide in the Liberal State: a Canadian Perspective
First Monday

The Digital Divide in the Liberal State: a Canadian Perspective by William F. Birdsall

The "digital divide" has emerged as a public policy challenge. This paper examines universal access public policy development in Canada within a North American context and its implications for addressing the digital divide. It concludes that the digital divide will not be eliminated either through public policy or the market due to the liberal public philosophy that is unique to and so strong in North America. The concept of the digital divide represents the dual structure characteristic of North American liberal social welfare policy.


The Digital Divide
Communications in Canada
The Ideology of Information Technology
Canadian Public Policy
Canadian Government Policy on Access
Information Haves and Have-nots
The Digital Divide Comes to Canada
Welfare States and Universalism
Dual Social Benefits Structure and the Digital Divide
Public Institutions and the Private Sector Market


The Digital Divide

Recently the phrase "digital divide" has emerged as a public policy issue in Canada. In a general sense, the phrase refers to the gap between those who have access to the Internet and those who do not. Reference is frequently made to the information haves and have-nots. However, to what extent there is a gap and whom it involves is not clear. A challenge is ascertaining the extent to which people actually have access to the Internet. According to Statistics Canada, by 1998, just under 25 per cent of Canadian households were connected to the Internet. Other statistics report how many households have someone who has used the Internet either from home, work, schools, libraries, and so forth. These are also sometimes characterized as "connected households." According to this latter measure Statistics Canada reported that in 1998, about 36 per cent of Canadian households were connected (Dickinson and Ellison, 1999). Private sector surveys put this figure over 50 per cent in 1999. Using such statistics, the case is argued that Canada is not far behind the United States in Internet connectivity (Tuck, 1999).

Given the Government's desire to make Canada the most wired nation in the world, it is not surprising that the reliability of statistics are questioned when a survey ranks Canada tenth in being connected to the information highway. These results suggest, "Canada is not the wired nation its leaders want it to be" (Akin, 1999, p. A1). The debate will continue over the nature of the digital divide. However, this paper is more concerned with the prospects of the divide being closed through public policy or market strategies.

If one is looking for a public policy that defines what Canada is about, universalism is a strong contender, including access to communication technologies. The phrase "digital divide" is relatively new to Canada but the issue of the equitable distribution of access to modes of communication is one that extends throughout Canadian history. With roots going back to nineteenth century national objectives, universalism became central to twentieth century Canadian public policy. Canadians take pride in their adoption of this principle, most obviously in the provision of health care, but in other spheres of public policy as well. They see their commitment to universality as an important feature distinguishing Canada from the United States.

As one of the largest countries in the world geographically with a widely dispersed, sparse population, communication technologies have always played an important role in Canadian nation building and identity. Universal access to communications technologies is part of this tradition of universalism. However, over the closing two decades of the twentieth century there has been a growing adherence to an ideology of information technology that gives greater weight to the market as a means of allocating social services. Canadians pride themselves on a being less individualistic and laissez faire than Americans while emphasizing more a statist and communitarian approach to public policy (Lipset, 1990). Yet, on the issue of universal access to the information highway, the Canadian government has adopted a market-orientated strategy as fervent as its American counterpart. This shift in public philosophy has generated a market driven concept of universal access in telecommunications that shapes how the digital divide is conceived and addressed in Canada. This policy, as that in the United States, reflects a liberal public philosophy almost unique to these two North American nations.

This paper examines this policy development in a North American context and its implications for addressing the digital divide. It concludes that the digital divide will not be eliminated either through public policy or the market due to the liberal public philosophy that is unique to and so strong in North America.


Communications in Canada

Communication technologies have always been critical political and economic tools and possess a cultural importance as symbols of Canadian identity. Various modes of communication - railroads, telegraphy, telephony, broadcasting - have been enlisted as part of the nation building and cultural identity strategies of successive governments throughout Canadian history. These technologies were to serve as binding ties running east and west to offset the strong economic and cultural pull of Canada's larger neighbor to the south.

During the nineteenth century the railroad in particular served this nation-building role. According to Maurice Charland the railroad transcended space permitting "the development of a political state and created the possibility of a nation. It did so by extending Ottawa's political power: it permitted Ottawa to exclude a powerful American presence from western Canada and thus establish its political control over the territory" (Charland, 1986, p. 198). The railroads took on a mythic quality that became attached to each subsequent mode of communication. In 1932, the Trans-Canada Telephone System was completed linking the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. At the opening ceremony it was asserted by the Governor-General that the telephone system "binds more closely together provinces which less than fifty years ago were first united by the social and commercial ties made possible by railroad construction" (Trans-Canada Telephone System, 1932, p. 1). Like the railroads, electronic modes of communication would abolish space and bind the nation together, forging not only a vibrant national economy but a culture distinct from that of the United States. Not surprisingly, current Canadian odes to the information highway place it in the technological nationalism of Canadian railroad building and other earlier modes of communication (Babe, 1990).

For Canada, then, its culture is very much defined by its communication systems. Canadians possess a sophisticated awareness of the import of communications technologies in cultural, economic, and political development. They are among the most "plugged-in" people in the world. The household penetration rate of telephony and cable are among the highest in the world. Canada was the third country after the Soviet Union and the United States to launch a satellite, sparking Marshall McLuhan to coin his famous phrase, "the global village." Indeed, the widely recognized work of Harold Innis, Dallas Smythe, Marshall McLuhan, and their heirs is a testimony of the Canadian contribution to the understanding of the social impact of communication technologies. As Canadian communications scholar Robert Babe demonstrates in his book Canadian Communication Thought, Canadian intellectuals have formulated a distinct critical orientation to communication studies. (Babe, 2000)



If communications technologies were to serve the important nation building objectives assigned to them, then they had to be available to all Canadians. The principle of universality was inherent to their adoptation as political and economic tools. The principle of universality would be strengthened in the twentieth century with the emergence of telecommunications and broadcasting media (Buchwald, 1997). The public owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was established in the 1930s to insure universal accessibility to radio broadcasting. The CBC moved into television in the 1950s. While the development of the post-World War II welfare state in the United States and Canada would result in similar social policies distinct from European models, Canada's commitment to universalism is a feature distinguishing Canadian from U.S. public policy (Esping-Andersen, 1990, p. 70).

Understandably, then, universality would be a major public policy concern when the Federal government began to grapple with the rapid technological developments in computing and telecommunications in the late 1960s. In 1969, the newly created Department of Communications established a Telecommission consisting of high-level public servants to undertake a comprehensive study of telecommunications in Canada. The Telecommission issued its 256-page report, Instant World, in 1971. The report was immediately recognized within and outside of Canada as a landmark analysis of the "wedding" of telecommunications and computing (Canada, 1971). The Telecommission was sensitive to the tradition of universal access established in telephony and broadcasting. Concerned about accessibility to the emerging computer based communications networks, the Telecommission declared that there was "a compelling need for regulation of telecommunications" to insure that the price of services was "just and reasonable" and that accessibility was available without discrimination (Canada, 1971, p. 6). Consequently, it observed that "It seems probable that nobody, however deeply committed to the benefits of private enterprise, would deny that the implementation of telecommunications policy requires at least some governmental supervision and, for certain purposes, direct involvement" (Canada, 1971, p. 4).

The strong endorsement of universal access by the Telecommission appeared at a time - the early 1970s - that can now be seen as the twilight years of the building of the North American welfare state. The social welfare liberal consensus that marked the post-war period in North America was beginning to come apart (Morgan, 1994). This consensus, which included both liberals and conservatives, was challenged by a plurality of forces that created a new public philosophy, first in the United States and then in Canada. Out of this change in both countries' political culture there emerged an ideology of information technology that challenged the concept of universal access.


The Ideology of Information Technology

An ideology of information technology began to emerge in the United States in the 1970s. It drew upon the confluence of conservative politics, classical liberal laissez-faire free market values, and technological determinism (Birdsall, 1996; Birdsall, 1997). These tendencies joined with an avid belief that the convergence of computing and telecommunications formed a technological foundation for economic growth. The fusion of information technology with free market economics and conservative political values was adopted by both of the major political parties. While Republican House Leader Newt Gingrich became a high profile early exponent of such views, by the mid-1990s the Democratic Party captured and exploited this policy issue. Vice-President Albert Gore became a prominent advocate of the development of a National Information Infrastructure (NII) as an economic growth strategy.

The media, politicians, pundits and academics continually expound the cluster of premises of the ideology of information technology. According to this ideology, information technology is inevitably driving the shift from an industrial society to an information society. The raw material or basic commodity of this society's knowledge based economy is information. In the knowledge-based economy only the marketplace should determine which goods and services are produced and how they are generated; there are no "public goods." Enamored with the insights of the Austro-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, adherents of the ideology claim there will be turbulent and unsettling times ahead but in the long run the benefits of "creative destruction" created by entrepreneurs in a competitive market will outweigh any short-term pain that it causes. Government is assigned the role promoting a competitive market through deregulation and privatization. Government intervention is pointless in any case; national economies are now part of global economy over which governments should have no control. Furthermore, the knowledge-based economy has spawned the knowledge worker who is prepared to go anywhere in the world to sell her or his skills. The knowledge-based economy also requires a new kind of citizen, the citizen as consumer. The primary responsibility of a good citizen is to be a good consumer at the information highway mall.

This ideology is not at odds with traditional American liberal values of faith in the market, and individual self-reliance. However, it is a shift from the welfare liberalism of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s to more traditional liberal values. Hence, the many references to the emergence of neo-liberalism or neo-conservatism. The fervor to use information technology as an economic tool for increased productivity focused on creating not only a national but also a global information infrastructure. The United States advanced this idea by advocating a Global Information Infrastructure (GII) through international bodies such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and multi-lateral agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).


Canadian Public Policy

There is no other country in the world less immune to these American global initiatives than Canada. The ideology of information technology was enthusiastically embraced in Canada as its political center, long dominated by the Liberal Party, moved to the right along with that in the United States. As we have seen, Canadian nationalists look to public policy to bind the country through an East-West orientation that perceives Canada as a distinct nation in North America. However, Canadian continentalists have a North-South orientation that perceives Canada through a North American construct. By the 1980s, the public policy needle was swinging around in a North-South or continentalist direction. Government policy focused on making Canada competitive in a North American, information technology driven free market. Consequently, by the closing years of the 1990s, the stated objective of the Liberal government was to make Canada the most "connected" country in the world to the information highway and a leader in electronic commerce by the year 2000. It brags that it has the world's most unregulated and competitive telecommunications sector.

Since the Telecommission report of the early 1970s, the Canadian government had continued its attempt to formulate a telecommunications policy that could keep abreast of rapid technological developments. By the early 1990s the Liberal government felt the need to formulate an information highway policy. It expressed concern that Canada's major economic competitors and trading partners - the European community, the United States, and Japan - were undertaking ambitious information infrastructure initiatives. In was especially conscious of the Clinton Administration's announcement in 1993 of implementing a National Information Infrastructure (Canada, 1994, p. 4).

As a policy planning process the Government turned to the time-honored device of forming an advisory body (Birdsall, 1999). John Manley, Minister of Industry, formed an Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC) in 1994 to advise government on a national strategy for developing the information highway. This was an industry-dominated body; over half of its twenty-nine members were senior executives of major telecommunications and media corporations. Another member was a former Liberal federal Minister of Communications who was a registered lobbyist in the telecommunications industry. The minority of members was a mélange of academics, computing administrators, a representative from a consumer group, a labor leader, and a playwright from the arts community. The Council held no public hearings and its meetings were held in camera. Its deliberations have been described as "a series of blue-ribbon bitching sessions" that appeared "more like an industry round table than a public consultation process" (Fraser, 1999, p. 70). Considering its domination by business senior management, it is not surprising that the ideology of information technology infuses IHAC's reports. The Council asserted that in the new information economy success will be determined by a competitive, unregulated marketplace. Government should be relegated to setting minimal ground rules and promoting e-commerce. The IHAC claimed that innovation in information technology would ensure an increase in productivity and a growth in jobs (Canada, 1995a).

The Government's response to the IHAC report reflected the Council's values and perspective. The Government indicated that the primary thrust of its information highway policy would be "creating a competitive, consumer-driven policy and regulatory environment that is in accord with the Canadian public interest and that is conducive to innovation and investment by Canadian industry in new services on the Information Highway" (Canada, 1996a, p. 2). The Government stated it would give priority to creating a competitive environment fostering a consumer-driven development of services on the information highway. And what about affordable access? The Government held the belief that "The growing market for information products and services should work to insure affordable access to essential Information Highway services in a competitive environment" (Canada, 1996a, p. 23). It made a commitment to stepping in to assure access if the market failed to provide an appropriate level of access and essential services. Yet, it never formed an advisory committee to define access and essential services criteria as recommended by the IHAC itself and public interest advocates (Campbell, 1998). The Government's policy on access to the information highway forms the context for the policy issue of the digital divide.


Canadian Government Policy on Access

A public policy challenge for the Government was how it could leave the construction of the information highway and the services provided over it to the market while maintaining the traditional Canadian commitment to universality? How could it reconcile liberalism's valuing of universality with its equal valuing of the power of the market? It did this by fusing its economic objectives with the concept of universality of access to the information highway. Connecting Canadians, as its access policy is called, could fulfill the IHAC's hope that getting Canadians on the information highway would whet their appetite for electronic consumer goods and services. Here the Government signaled its reliance on the private sector market. At the same time, it could claim that its strategy of connecting schools, libraries, and community centers was meeting the need for a universal access policy.

Aiming for the creation of a mass consumption market, the Canadian Government's access policy is based on the fundamental strategy that the construction of the information highway and the services offered over it should be achieved by the private sector and determined by the market. The government's supporting role is to promote the development of a consumer market on the information highway. Thus, it espouses the rhetoric of the ideology of information technology to convince Canadians that the information highway is the foundation of economic growth in a knowledge-based economy. The objective of this campaign is to deliver enough consumers on the information highway to attract the private sector investment required to construct it. It is hoped, in turn, that this investment and greater use of information technology will spur higher levels of productivity and wealth. Therefore, connecting Canadians in combination with providing the legal and policy framework for e-commerce became the government's top priority.

In the U.S., the Clinton administration's information highway policy was pro-business, treating information as a commodity rather than a public good. Thus, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce was given the mandate to develop the information highway (Harris, Hannah, and Harris, 1998, 62). Canada followed a similar strategy. Likewise, in Canada the mandate to promote the information highway was given to the Department of Industry Canada. Naturally, Industry Canada would be concerned about connectivity to the information highway as part of its efforts to promote e-commerce.


Information Haves and Have-nots

The Government has closely monitored household penetration rates of computers and telecommunications services. Access to the Internet is compared with telephone and cable penetration rates whose high rates are closer to universal access (over 98% of households for telephones). The prospect that a division could arise within society based on access to the information highway was expressed in the early 1990s. It was acknowledged that the information highway would be critical to an individual's economic and social well-being. Hence, the lack of appropriate public policies could result in the creation of classes of information "haves" and "have-nots" (Canada, 1994, p. 31).

In 1995, a Statistics Canada report observed that more Canadians were traveling the information highway. Over the previous nine years the proportion of households with a computer had tripled, increasing from 10.3% in 1986 to 28.8% in 1995. However, of these only 42% had the modems necessary to access the Internet. While these statistics were impressive, the report raised the prospect that the information highway might bypass poorer households. Its statistics clearly indicate "income is the passport to this electronic highway" (Canada, 1995b, p. 10). Over half of the households in the top 20% income quintile had computers compared to about 12% for those in the lowest quintile. These figures, showing similar trends to those in the U.S., presented a disturbing challenge to the concept of universal access.

Inspired by the U. S. Commerce Department's publication in 1995, of Falling Through the Net: A Survey of 'Have Nots' in Rural and Urban America, Industry Canada issued special reports in 1996 (Dickinson, 1996) and 1997 (Dickinson and Sciadas, 1997). These reports expanded the analysis to include not only computers and modems but also Internet connectivity. (By this time, the ill-defined concept of the information highway was being abandoned by limiting discussion to connectivity to the Internet.) Dickinson and Sciadas confirmed in their report that the strong relationship between household income and computer and modem penetration rates was also holding true for Internet use. (Dickinson and Sciadas, 1997, p. 78)

Statistics Canada compilations continued to reiterate, "Income remains the key to the information highway" (Canada, 1996b, p. 10; Canada, 1997b, p. 10). Thus, surveys undertaken by the Government demonstrate that "computer ownership and Internet access is segmented heavily along social class, educational and generational lines." (Ekos Research, 1998) Despite the increase in access to the information highway in all income categories, a gap remains; recent Statistics Canada data indicates that those living in the highest income households were almost five times more likely to use access to the Internet than those in the lowest income households (Canada, 1999).


The Digital Divide Comes to Canada

Canada's "Connecting Canadians" policy continues to echo the Clinton administration's "Connecting All Americans" strategy. Efforts continue in both countries to refine the statistical analysis of Internet connectivity, especially where the market continues to fail to deliver it. Thus, Canadian policy makers adopted the jargon of the "digital divide" as used in the United States (Reddick, 2000). In both countries, the issue of the digital divide has become an administrative problem. It is shifted out of the political public policy arena into bureaucratic programs. Formulated as an administrative issue, the digital divide is representative of the liberal pragmatic vein of the political cultures of both countries. Indeed, it is the liberal nature of North American public philosophy that accounts for the limited application of the concept of universalism. That application results in a dual structure in the distribution of social benefits. To understand how Canada has narrowed the principle of universal access to an administrative problem of connectivity as defined by the "digital divide" we need to look at the nature of liberalism in North America.

I am dwelling on the liberal nature of North American political culture because North American liberalism accounts for the way the issue of the digital divide is constructed. It is useful to start by examining the extent to which liberalism in the United States and Canada can be differentiated from other modern welfare states. Gosta Esping-Andersen's statistical analysis of social benefits in eighteen modern welfare states in Europe, North America, and Japan supports the contention that liberalism is a decisive political force in the formulation of public policy in Canada and the United States. Furthermore, in both countries liberalism's impact exceeds that of almost all other countries with which they are compared (Esping-Andersen, 1990).


Welfare States and Universalism

The welfare state has been defined as "A system in which the government undertakes the main responsibility for providing for the social and economic security of the state's population by means of pensions, social security benefits, free health care, and so forth" (McLean, 1996, p. 526). The welfare state differs from the traditional liberal state in that citizens have not only economic property rights but also social rights. Social and economic benefits are guaranteed by the state rather than distributed through the market thereby allowing individuals, such as those who are sick, to opt out of work (that is, the market) when they freely decide they need to do so (Esping-Andersen, 1990, p. 23). As well, degrees of universalism differentiate welfare states.

In his study of welfare states that emerged after the Second World War, Esping-Andersen delineates three types of welfare-state regimes. He uses the phrase welfare-state regime to indicate that welfare states differ in the structure and nature of the complex relation between the state and economy. He argues that by examining the structure of social programs, countries can be differentiated into three categories by the extent to which they embody degrees of liberalism, conservatism, and social democracy. He applies a variety of sophisticated statistical methods to a wide range of data in order to arrive at various scores of degrees of conservatism, liberalism, and social democracy.

In the "liberal" welfare state benefits are typically distributed either through means-tested programs, modest universal transfers, or social insurance plans. Work ethic norms prevail so that welfare entitlements are usually directed according to strict criteria to low-income clientele who are expected to enter the work force as soon as possible. Whenever possible, the state allows the market to provide and distribute benefits to those who do not meet the criteria for minimal assistance. As a consequence, there is a dual structure to social assistance programs whereby only those who meet certain criteria (to which there is usually a stigma attached) receive entitlements. This is a significant attribute to which we will return shortly. Esping-Andersen notes that the "archetypical examples" of the liberal welfare regime are the United States, Canada, and Australia.

The typical "conservative" welfare regime is found in countries that have a long tradition of a strong "corporatist" state and a Roman Catholic culture. As these states developed their welfare programs they did not share the liberal reliance on the market but were more concerned about social order and status. Therefore, there was little reluctance to allow the state to provide social assistance, especially programs that preserved the family. Countries with attributes of the conservative welfare regime are such nations as Austria, France, Germany, and Italy. Countries with a conservative welfare regime are only somewhat stronger in terms of universality than those in the liberal regime. In contrast to liberalism's dual structure, their social welfare benefits tend towards a hierarchical structure according to class and occupational groups.

Finally, the social democratic welfare regime is characterized by a high degree of universality of benefits. In the this regime universalism is a much stronger attribute than in the other two regimes due to the extension of benefits to the middle class at middle class standards. There is less reliance on the market for the provisions and distribution of benefits. Countries that display strong attributes of this regime are Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.

For our purposes, the salient point is that Canada and the United States consistently score high on measures of liberalism, usually higher than any of the other countries in the comparison. For example, in a clustering of welfare states by a cumulated index of degree of conservatism, liberalism, and social democratic attributes, Esping-Andersen observes that "all in all, there is one group that systematically scores high on our liberalism attributes: the United States and Canada, and also, slightly less distinctively, Australia and Switzerland" (Esping-Andersen, 1990, p. 75).


Dual Social Benefits Structure and the Digital Divide

Based on Esping-Andersen's analysis, we noted that it is characteristic of the North American liberal states to favor a stratified dual structure in the distribution of social benefits. This type of universalism, where social benefits are only distributed to those who meet certain means or needs tests (for example, low income) or social categories (for example, senior citizens), creates a dual structure between those receiving benefits and those who can attain them through the market. Liberalism's valuing of universalism and equality contain the paradox of a stratified social benefit structure where those receiving benefits are often stigmatized and expected eventually to enter or return to the market. Thus, benefits are often set at a minimal level in order to encourage those on relief to re-enter the market (Esping-Andersen, 1990, p. 62).

It is in this context of liberal welfare stratification that we can understand the digital divide. Statistical analysis in both Canada and the United States emphasize the growing number of people who are acquiring access through the market, the "haves" on one side of the divide. Those who are unable to achieve access (primarily although not exclusively due to level of income) are expected to use local public agencies. Thus, it is observed in Falling Through the Net II that "Because it may take time before these groups [low-income, minorities, the young] become connected at home, it is still essential that schools, libraries, and other community access centers ("CACs") provide computer access in order to connect significant portions of our population" (National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1999).

This theme is echoed in Canada. A recent report funded by Industry Canada and Human Resources Development Canada notes that while use of the Internet is growing rapidly the "awareness and the use of these new technologies and services are highly polarized along social class and generational lines, creating a digital divide." The report also observes that there is a shrinking of the middle class and a swelling of the lower class, which "suggests that optimism about all Canadians being connected to the Internet is exaggerated" (Reddick, 2000, p. 1, 50). Thus, recognizing that household Internet penetration rates are far from that characteristic of the telephone, the report expresses the opinion that libraries and community centers will have to continue for some time their role as access points for the socially and economically disadvantaged. In other words, they will provide the minimum public assistance to those who cannot gain access through the market. The result is a dual structure, deemed the "digital divide," characteristic of North American liberal public welfare policy.


Public Institutions and the Private Sector Market

Do these public institutions have the capacity to insure some measure of universal access? Prior to the formation of the IHAC, the federal Government initiated a number of programs to get schools, libraries and community centers connected to the network. These programs are SchoolNet, LibraryNet, and the Community Access Program (CAP) (The latter mirrors the U.S. Community Access Centers.). The Government folded these programs into its Connecting Canadians economic strategy. As Matthew Fraser, astute observer of the digital frontier, observes, while government policy focused on the needs of the "new consumer" those of the citizen became an afterthought; "Or they were evoked without fanfare as costly good deeds - hooking up schools, libraries, and hospitals to the Internet - that private interests contemplated with decidedly less enthusiasm" (Fraser, 1999, p. 288). The Government has been especially aggressive in getting computers into the schools. It is reported that Canada is only exceeded by Sweden in the number of students who have access to the Internet from school or home. According to a survey of students in sixteen countries 74% of the Canadian students surveyed were able to access the Internet from school and 71% from home. The results for Sweden were 78% and 80% respectively (Foss, 2000). If adherents of the ideology of information technology see such programs as inappropriate government intervention in the market their concerns were addressed by the IHAC when it argued that these programs actually "provide the least distortion to the Internet marketplace...if anything, thgh-tech companies and other adherents to the ideology call for reductions in government expenditures and debt and for reductions in corporate and individual tax rates. Under such circumstances schools, libraries, and community centers find themselves facing new demands for service while coping with reduced or stagnant budgets. While the government claims all schools and libraries are now connected to the Internet, public interest advocates point out that access is often limited due to a lack of a sufficient number of computers to meet demand. They note that hours of opening are limited as is the awareness of their availability. Furthermore, schools and libraries are faced with budget cuts that make it difficult to train staff and users, acquire furniture and equipment, implement software upgrades, maintain communication costs, and other ongoing costs (Campbell, 1999; Moll, 1997).

The end result is that the "haves" on the positive side of the digital divide will acquire the services they desire at the electronic market delivered on the information highway. The "have-nots" on the negative side of digital divide will be served by the limited resources of public agencies until such time as these individuals can move to the other side of the divide, that is to say, until such time as they re-enter the economic market. As recent analyses of the digital divide in both countries note, it is unlikely that universal access, even when minimally conceived as being technically connected to the Internet, will be achieved soon through the market. Indeed, I contend that in the liberal state there will always be a digital divide; it is inherent to North American liberal public philosophy. The policy debate in time will not be over how to eliminate the digital divide but only how large or small it should be.



Are there alternatives to this liberal philosophy? One possibility for Canada is to refrain from looking to the U.S. as a model and turn to those countries with which it shares a tradition of universality, that is, those countries with a social democratic welfare regime. While these countries, such as the Nordic nations, have never rejected the market and continue to formulate policies to make themselves more competitive, there is evidence that they recognize that technology is a social construct and that access in the information society cannot be left to the market alone. Countries such as Sweden and Denmark are attempting comprehensive public policies to insure they will "become an information society for all" (Swedish Government, 2000; Riis, 1997). However, it is too soon to know if they will be any more successful in overcoming the digital divide as those countries sharing the liberal welfare regime. In fact, there is the possibility they to will shift to a more liberal strategy. There are powerful business interests pushing in that direction (Skogerbø and Strosul, 2000).

While Canada and the United States are both liberal states distinct from others, there is one attribute where Canada differs significantly from America: the degree of its universalism, confirming Canadians' own sense of their distinctiveness from Americans. When Esping-Andersen formulated a measure of universalism using data on eligibility for sickness, unemployment, and pension benefits, Canada achieved a score of 93 compared to a mean of 72 and a score of 54 for the United States (Only Switzerland and Norway had higher scores than Canada: 96 and 95 respectively. Australia was lowest with a score of 33) (Esping-Andersen, 1990, p. 70). This high score for universalism for Canada distinguishes it not only from the United States but also from the other Anglo-Saxon nations with a liberal heritage. Its adherence to the principle of universalism is closer to that of the Nordic social democratic states. However, as we noted, the nature of Canada's social programs became a question of national identity, a key factor many see distinguishing Canada from the United States (Simeon, Hoberg, and Banting, 1997, p. 393). Thus, Canada's emphasis on universalism is not necessarily contrary to its fundamental liberalism, but rather a symbolic bulwark of its distinctiveness as a North American state. Whatever the explanation, during the past decade there is within Canada an increasing challenging of the principle of universalism as exemplified by the ideology of information technology and other initiatives (such as efforts to privatize health care). Strong continentalist advocates who foresee greater integration among the North American nations reinforce this challenge. In short, Canada could be becoming even more of a dual structure liberal regime.

Whatever success might be achieved abroad in social democratic countries, the fact is that at this time there is little chance Canada will look to Europe rather than to the United States. Despite current political rhetoric generated by a federal election campaign that claims the present party in power will defend Canadian values in opposition to American values presumably promoted by the opposition, Canadian social issues are increasingly defined in American terms. The continental drift to the south continues. Canada's political philosophy is deeply rooted in North American liberalism. As a result, universal access to the information highway will continue to be defined in terms of a dual social benefits structure characterized, in this policy sphere, as the digital divide.

Indeed, as for the concept of universal access, there is no progress in defining what it means and how it could be achieved through a national public policy. Narrowly conceived by the Government as consisting of little more than being technically connected to the Internet, the value of universal access as a public policy construct is dissipated. Use of the phrase is rarely encountered these days. The principle of universal access is no longer part of a public policy discourse. Universalism is transformed into a bureaucratic problem to be managed through the use of public agencies expected to serve those who have not yet been able to return to the market. The problem is cast as an administrative issue rather than one of principle, and the file has been given the name "digital divide." End of article


About the Author

William F. Birdsall is Executive Director of Novanet, Inc., a consortium of academic libraries in Nova Scotia.


The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and should not be attributed to his employer.


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Editorial history

Paper received 28 October 2000; accepted 30 November 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

The Digital Divide in the Liberal State: a Canadian Perspective by William F. Birdsall
First Monday, volume 5, number 12 (December 2000),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2018. ISSN 1396-0466.